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This is not a toad and do not lick it

I’ve noticed a pattern. In late September and early October, Spadefoots come out and wander around the yard. Some are small, and look like young of the year. Some are less small, and may be hatched in previous seasons.

Today I noticed an agitation in the pool — my workspace looks over the shallow end — and I went out to check, expecting a lizard. We’ve got a wildlife ramp set up, but not all plunge-victims find it in time, so I always go out to see what’s causing ripples.

It was a fairly well-grown Spadefoot. As I’ve mentioned here in the past, Spadefoots are not technically toads, although you’d never know by looking, or at least I wouldn’t know. Technically, they are “toad-like amphibians”. Or so I’ve read.


Here’s an eye-level shot of today’s TLA (toad-like amphibian)

You’ll just have to imagine me lying on my belly on the gritty pool deck with the end of the macro lens just centimeters off this guy’s nose. I think the proximity of the lens is what accounts for the wacky eye-angle: parallax.

more info

#333300;”>And look at those clutching little fingers — I LOVE toad hands. (Yes they’re not toads, and yes they’re not hands, but you know what I mean). Also, it’s hard to tell where its smile ends — does it wrap all the way around its shoulders like a shawl? Am I in danger of being swallowed? In case you’re wondering, its skin isn’t really blue, but it was in the shade, and the digital process cooled its natural tans and dark olives to the color you see. The eyes, however, really are that shattered-glass golden green. The whole animal is not quite three inches long.

I had to rescue it out of the pool twice, and we’ll have to keep checking the filter basket for a few days. At some point, the Spadefoot will have hunted itself into a state of packing enough stored energy to survive its over-wintering self-interment. Then it’ll dig in somewhere in soft soil to wait for next year’s summer storms, when the thunder will boom it up from the ground to enjoy the moist monsoon nights.

Subsequent “toad” extractions

‘Tis the Season.

Every morning when I get up, I check the pool for unintentional overnight swimmers. Usually there’s nothing, but when there is it’s often a sunspider, or a scorpion, or beetle; sometimes it’s a hapless mammal like a pocket mouse. Sometimes it’s a rescue, sometimes a recovery, to use the clear but courteously oblique terms of search and rescue.

>> hatchling afloat contemplating options, fully aware of looming predators, uncertain of their intentions

This time of year — at least this year — it’s spadefoot hatchlings. We seem to have successfully hosted a batch of hatch of these Sonoran native amphibians (toad-like but technically not, more accurately referred to as a toad-like amphibian — the way a javelina is not an actual pig, Sus, but a pig-like mammal). We are happy and proud, of course, but a little surprised, since we thought our local population of Couch’s spadefoots had dried up. Up to this point, we weren’t sure our 2008 efforts at re-introduction (read here) positively took, and we haven’t heard their sheep-like bleating mating calls this year, despite several seemingly appropriate thunder-blasting, downpouring monsoon storms of the sort we’re assured is considered by “toads” to be romantically stimulating.

Yet here they are in our yard, Couch’s spadefoot hatchlings, and so the resulting morning pool check is carried out. Usually this is what happens: I go out, check the strainer, the hose, the tile water line, the open water, the bottom (for victims, although we’ve never found a drowned toad), and fail to find a “toad”. Then an hour later E goes out and announces, “A! ‘Toad’!” (“Janet! Donkeys!”) From this we know that either a) the toads are jumping in after sunrise, or b) I’m blind to Couch’s spadefoots. Since a tiny ‘toad’ throws hard-to-miss ripples from its bi-lateral, efficient frog-kicking tour around the perimeter, we think it must be a). a) is the more desirable answer because it means that the “toadlets” aren’t spending a long time in a water feature they can’t climb out of (we do have various ramp-like structures set up for self-extraction from the pool, but smaller animals don’t always find their way to them). Answer a) also means I’m not blind to “toads.”

<< scooped up in a kitchen strainer, not an inch long

The paddler we rescued this morning — pictured in this post, both images — appears to be a lighter “toad” than the last one rescued, with more highly contrasty spots, which is an indication we’re probably dealing with a batch rather than a one-off. Hurray spadefoots! You’re welcome to use our overgrown, puppy-dog-free yard as a nursery any time!

(Photos A.Shock — they’re large files, click for better look. Check out the blood supply in delicate veins on throat in bottom photo, and a glimpse of dark spade on rear feet of upper photo)

Touch the Tiny Toad!

Monday was International Touch the Tiny Toad Day, with bonus Whiptail.  I guess the whiptail makes it more correctly International Touch the Reptile Day, except it wasn’t international, it was just in our yard, and a toad isn’t a reptile, but then again, it was a tiny Spadefoot, which isn’t a toad but a toad-like amphibian, although an amphibian still isn’t a reptile.  But it was tiny, and I touched it.

Couch’s Spadefoot, Scaphiopus couchii, (photo E.Shock) >>

At any rate, I ended the day having made contact with two herptiles: a Spadefoot toadlet which E rescued out of the pool and I held on my palm while he snapped its portrait in the rosy light of sunset, and a Sonoran Tiger Whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris punctilinealis) which I’d rescued out of the pool earlier but didn’t get a picture of because it zipped into the cover of the fan palm as soon as I lifted it onto the deck.

Normally I go weeks if not months between making direct contact with a yard herp, so this was a kind of blue moon event, as far as handling neighborhood non-mammals goes.  Both whiptails and spadefoots have very soft, smooth belly skin, cool and heavy like silk.  (FYI: if you ever find a whiptail in your pool, go ahead and rescue it by hand — I’ve never had one try to bite, unlike some other lizards I could mention. If you rescue a spadefoot — or any toad — wash your hands afterwards: many have toxins in their skin, and Couch’s toxins pack an eye-swelling wallop, I understand.)

The question remains: was this tiny toadlike toddler an offspring of one of the Couch’s spadefoots we released in September 2008? It’s about the same size as those hatchlings were — that would make today’s youngster “young of the year”, and the first evidence that our releases had reproduced.  (Of course, it could have washed in from uphill during the August flash flood.)  But still, in past years we’ve found larger spadefoots in the pool (right>>) which we’ve assumed were “ours” from ’08, and they were way bigger than this lil dude, so we’re figuring he’s a subsequent generation.

In the top picture, take a look at the spadefoot’s hind leg, underneath his foot.  See that small black dash that looks like a piece of crud on my hand?  That’s his little “spade”: a hard, dark digging organ situated under each back foot, which gives him his name in both English (spadefoot) and Greek (scaphiopus). Actually, you can also see it on the left foot of the spadefoot in the pool photo, too. Click on this link to the Calherps website to see lots of Couch’s spadefoot photos, and scroll to the very bottom to see great shots of their spades.

And, because I didn’t get a photo of the whiptail, here’s a bonus Green-tailed Towhee (Pipilo chlorurus, photo E.ShockE is on a roll, being in the right place at the right time with his camera!)  Green-tailed towhees are Arizona natives, but they breed in mid- to high-elevations, so it’s just passing through our yard — although it’s possible it could stay for the winter.  It looks legless because it’s belying its rep for being a secretive bird by taking a dust bath out in the open.  And it looks spiky because it’s molting in fresh plumage, especially around its face, and the new feathers are still wrapped in a protective keratin casing, like the tips of shoelaces.  The shoelaces’ pushing out makes a towhee itchy, and that’s probably why it’s rolling around in the gritty gravel, scratching its itchy bits.  Itchy itchy towhee.

The Week in Review: the last monsoon event?

Earlier in the week we had a storm — technically outside the officially designated monsoon season — and it was a colorful one.  Our microcosm of Phoenix received about a half inch of technicolor rain in a very short time, without the wind and hail that the same towering clouds dropped on neighbors less than three miles to the east.  The storm brought amazing sunset skies, migrants, optimistic amphibians, and flowers to our yard.  (All photos E.Shock.)

Shortly after these clouds moved over the metro area, the dark skies split, pumping rain and lightning into the creosote-scented night air.

The next morning, we found an excellent red dragonfly drying its wings on barbed wire, “our” spadefoot wound up in the pool again along with the rest of the storm debris, awaiting rescue, and the Herrerrae barrel cactus’s crown of fragrant yellow and red blooms were saturated with color.  The architecturally precise buds tautly await their turn in the vortex of the flower crown — the easier-going little lemony pine-apples slouching around the edge are last year’s fruits, waiting to split open and disgorge their seeds, or be plucked and carried off by an herbivore, and left elsewhere to start a new barrel.

With luck, cactus and wildflower seeds all over the desert will be soaking up the fall moisture, preparing themselves for next spring’s blooming.

(Don’t forget to click to enlarge)

Further fun with spadefoot

Saturday night in our yard, a Couch’s spadefoot emerged after a substantial monsoon event, and used our swimming pool as his stage to advertise his availability to females, and sovereignty to other male spadefoots.  (See previous post.)

<< Spadefoot in the pool net, after exciting dawnzerlylight rescue orchestrated with dramatic Great horned owl background music (photo A.Shock).  Look at those eyes — better than dichroic glass!

Swimming pools are not terribly good for wildlife.  Wonky chemistry + steep sides = unfriendly locale.  At two in the morning, however, I was not able to fish out the wary spadefoot, who fled to the bottom every time I approached with the soft mesh pool skimmer to rescue him.  Eventually he swam right to the very deepest depths of the deep end, where even the long-handled skimmer pole could not not reach.

So, I assembled an impromptu spadefoot ramp.  Mr. Spadefootdude had been calling consistently from one spot at the edge tiles of the shallow end, so rustling up a four-foot one-by-ten and some bricks, I put the structure there in the hopes he’d return to his stage after I’d gone away, and climb out if he wished.

<<  Spadefoot ramp.  Like purpose-made cat toy, not used by spadefoot.

Sunday morning, I got up at dawn to check on his progress.  After the rain it was cool enough to shut down the AC and open doors and windows, so the Great horned owls duetting from the alley phone pole had awakened me anyway.  These were very late hours for them, as the sky was lightening, and the Brown crested flycatchers and Abert’s towhees were already up, brrting and chnking.  Sure enough, the spadefoot was still in the pool, strongly kicking along the bottom of the deepest part with its sturdy legs.

By now I was more awake (and more coordinated), so using both the pool brush and the skimmer, I managed to gather the spadefoot gently in the net and lift him up to the surface.  He paused for the photo portrait above, then competently took himself off hopping, to find a sheltered hiding spot for the day.

If you are wondering why the word “toad” doesn’t appear in these spadefoot posts, it’s because, toadly as they look, spadefoots are not true toads.  On the basis of structural differences, they have been assigned their own family, Pelobatidae, which means spadefoot in Greek.  More info here.

Coincidentally during that very spadefoot night I’d done a smoke firing, and in the bin were two batrachian images, frogs to be sure (prominent tympanum instead of parotoid gland), but still in the ballpark.

<<  Here’s one of the whistles, very Couchy. They’ll be offered at Southwest Wings Birding and Nature Festival in Sierra Vista next week (object and photo A.Shock).

I hope the spadefoot doesn’t make a return appearance on his watery stage tonight; I might not hear him again, if the windows are closed.  I guess that toadramp will be staying in place a little longer.  “wraaaaaaah”

Words cannot describe the excitement…

…of finding a spadefoot in the yard!

A few minutes ago — just before one a.m. — I was awakened by a sound I haven’t heard in our yard or in our neighborhood for years: a loud bleating croak, with the slightly rising tone and resonance I can only describe as being like the noise a wet rubber boot would make slowly squelching against another wet rubber surface, like an inflatable raft.  “wraaaaaaah”   “wraaaaaaah”   “wraaaaaaah”  It was the advertising call of a male Couch’s spadefoot.

Couch’s spadefoot (Scaphiopus couchii, photo by A.Shock), having taken refuge at the very bottom of the pool, after I rudely interrupted his advertising song in the middle of the night by shining a flashlight on him, and looking at him.  >>

Our very own spadefoot!  This is exciting because, as I said, we haven’t had them in years.  I figured they were extirpated from around here, so when my friend Kathy, who has them, well… in spades in her north Scottsdale yard, offered me a mort o’ spadefootlets, I jumped at the chance.  I fed them up in a terrarium (a task made more difficult for being necessary during a nationwide retail cricket shortage) and released them in the yard.  After that, there hasn’t been a word from the spadefoots (spadefeet?).  Not a peep, not a croak, not a sighting, nothing.  Mind you, this release was two years ago, in September 2008.  (I blogged the event here.)  I figured they hadn’t “taken.”

Last summer’s monsoon was a pretty weak one in these parts; maybe the spadefeet didn’t get what they needed.  But this afternoon we had about six tenths of an inch of rain in just over half an hour.  The wash in the yard ran; I had to do some engineering to keep water out of the studio (at least from the ground up; water always comes into the studio from the top down).  Anyway, as much as we need the rain, and as cool and lovely as a windless monsoon event makes the desert air, I was not feeling fully friendly toward our wet weather.  Until it brought out a spadefoot!  I’m hoping there are others out there, females, with luck, and we can get a spadefoot thing goin’ on again in the joint.

(Now to get him out of the pool, which can’t be good for him, chemically; plus, he can’t get out by himself, so he’s a sitting duck for the raccoons, which have been marauding recently, mama and two kits.  Poor dude, he’s just lookin’ for love…)

Couch’s spadefoots: Tons of tiny toadlets!

My friend Kathy gave me a bucket of toads. Twenty five tiny toads, actually Couch’s spadefoots (Scaphiopus couchii) to be precise. Spadefoots are toadlike amphibians, with their own family, Pelobatidae (see etymological note below). They’re native to the Sonoran desert, and their reproductive cycle is timed to take advantage of summer monsoon rains, needing only 7-8 days to go from egg to tadpole to toadlet. In between monsoon seasons, the adults stay buried deep in the soil of sandy washes to keep from drying out. They can stay buried for 8-10 months at a time, until storms bring the right conditions for them to feed and breed. The sheep-like bleating of the singing male spadefoot is an archetypal sound of the Sonoran desert. Some Arizona tribes associate toads and owls with monsoon rain, and that’s the origin of the fanciful Three Star Owl pieceTwo-Toad Owl“.

These little spadefoots hatched in a standing pool in Kathy’s Scottsdale yard, where they’re plentiful. They’re very tiny — each could sit on a penny. They’re so small that it wasn’t until I saw the close-up photos that their emerald green eyes were noticeable. If you’ve never nourished toadlets, they’re easy to feed: if it moves and fits in the toadlet’s mouth, they’ll eat it. These guys have been snarfing up crickets, and other protein-rich yummies like Miller moth larvae from birdseed (and an old bag of flour!). Even ants will go down the hatch, as long as it’s not one of the larger soldiers, which put off a noxious chemical. The one on the left was photographed before the first cricket feeding; it plumped up noticeably after downing a small cricket or two.

But I’m not keeping them in captivity. Once they’re fed up, I’ll release them in our yard at twilight, where hopefully they’ll replenish our neighborhood population. Releasing them after dark will give them a head-start over the foraging Curve-billed thrashers and Cactus Wrens. A couple years ago, we would hear male spadefoots bleating like lambs after a big rainstorm, and one or two would end up in the pool, looking for somewhere to breed. But recently, we haven’t heard or seen any. So I’m hoping these guys get things going again. Good luck, little spadefoots, and ‘ware Raccoons and Coachwhips!

Photos: the adult spadefoot photo is from the US Fish & Wildlife site on Arizona Amphibians. The other photos are by A. Shock. Excellent photos and still more info about Couch’s spadefoot can be found at Firefly Forest — check it out.

Etymolgical note and stray ornithological note

About the term “spadefoot”: It comes from the small, hard digging appendage on the underside of the back legs of these amphibians. Members of the family Pelobatidae are not considered “true” toads, so it’s proper to call them simply “spadefoots”. Pelobatidae, the family name for all Spadefoots, comes from a Greek word, pelobates (πηλοβατης), literally “mud-walker”. A nice tie-in for a potter is that the first element of this word comes from the Greek word pelos, meaning “clay”, specifically the clay used by potters and sculptors. The genus, Scaphiopus, is constructed of two Greek elements and means “spade-foot”. The species name, couchii, comes from the surname of Darius Nash Couch, a U.S. Army officer who, during leave in 1853/54, traveled as a Smithsonian Institute naturalist to Mexico, where he collected specimens of both the Couch’s Spadefoot, and Couch’s Kingbird, a tyrant flycatcher native to south Texas and the gulf coast of Mexico. Out-of-range Couch’s kingbirds occasionally show up in Arizona. Recently, a Couch’s kingbird has wintered in Tacna in southwest Arizona, eating bees and behaving like a tyrant flycatcher.

Spadefoot Update

All toadlets released tonight, in three batches around the yard, in areas with lots of cover, leaf litter, and access to sandy soil. Turns out there were about 30. They all hopped away dispersing almost instantly in the dark. They are hereby encouraged to eat earwigs and small cockroaches.