It may be a childhood ritual to read Arnold Lobel’s illustrated series about “Frog and Toad,” but my grandsons have had the opportunity to see so many real amphibians up close this year that those animated characters must seem awfully tame by comparison.
It has been a summer of nature studies for us. Despite the pandemic, we have masked ourselves like bandits and visited the wonderful Nature Center at Dobbs Park on several occasions. There, it seems our guys enjoy the snakes and turtles most of all, although walking the park’s trails gives them the freedom that they most crave.
Our trips to the now bone-dry branch at the family farm and the widening creek banks nearby have yielded a good bit of interest too, and, then, of course, before the weeds and itch of the hottest weather moved in, we often wandered down into our own woods and its bog and drainage ditches and beaver dams to see even more.
Our encounters with living things reached its peak in late August and early September, I suppose.
It was in that stretch of just a few weeks that I was forced to scoop up a rather large and uncooperative snapping turtle — which had covered considerable distance and slowly hiked a daunting hillside — that came to visit a water bowl we keep near our hydrant. She undoubtedly wanted to lay a late load of eggs somewhere nearby, for they are notorious for unburdening themselves in odd places, then plodding off to leave their newly-hatched babies to fend for themselves.
Not interested in having my fingers meet the snapper’s business end, I scooped her up with a square-headed shovel, plopped her into my old wheel barrow, and on what had to have been one of the hottest days of the year, hauled her all the way back down to the shrinking and smelly little pond from which she came. After the bumpy ride she had, I felt assured that despite her tiny brain, she was smart enough to never come knocking at our door again.
Not long after, we encountered a snake, one that had apparently flattened itself just enough to get under our garage door. It was a common milk snake that looked menacing, but was harmless. Often made into pets, we had absolutely no interest in keeping it, so quick action with a 5-gallon bucket and a broom — no, I don’t care to touch snakes — got it out of the garage and into my truck for a joyride to an abandoned barn.
Then, came the evening in early September when Joanie came home from town a bit flustered; she had found a bird in the road that needed our help. After coaxing it off the pavement into a ditch, she drove a mile to the house to get both me and a cardboard box; she wanted to get the bird to a rehabilitation specialist. Expecting to find, by her description, a killdeer, we were pleased to find a nighthawk instead; I had never seen one before.
The nighthawk spent the night in an old rabbit cage in our barn and started another leg of its adventure with a broken wing the next morning. I guess I had to have been preoccupied, for I never thought to take a photo of the bird, which, despite its name, is not a hawk at all. In fact, nighthawks belong to a family of birds called “goatsuckers,” based, of course, on a myth that they drank milk from the livestock with which they often share pastures.
Nighthawks — often called by old timers, “Nightjars” — are related to and resemble a bird I grew up listening to through the screen windows of my boyhood bedroom: whippoorwills. A few years ago, a reader wrote to me to ask what had happened to the birds, once so common here. At the risk of dampening the tone of this story, I read that continued de-foresting and the wide-spread use of insecticides have drastically hurt whippoorwills, now considered “globally threatened.” It is sad to think that my grandsons will, in all probability, never hear one; at least I still have that lonely, lovely call still in my head.
Finally, of course, came our encounters with frogs and toads. Ironically, as the summer grew drier, we saw more and more of both as they sought the water of our hoses, the fetid pools left by a receding creek, and the backdoor lights as bugs began to hover in their glow.
One particularly warty American toad took up residence under a fountain we keep running near our front door. On occasion, but mostly toward dusk, we would see him, hunched like a coal miner under the fountain’s base, emerge to slurp gnats and mosquitoes. More than once, I stretched out on our sidewalk to take his picture, but he is gone now, apparently tired of the attention or the cool nights. Of course, we also saw Fowler’s toads as we walked along the creek; often nearly too small and too camouflaged to be seen, they usually hunkered down in place, hoping we’d either lose sight of them or our interest.
After dark, we would turn on our porch lights and see as many as five or six gray tree frogs stuck to our siding like decals. We knew all along that they were living behind a terra cotta clock and another small fountain, in our house plants and behind a metal sun decoration; most of them allowed us the occasional touch, and they seemed to grow used to us as we walked through our backdoor or sat in a deck chair; we expect them to visit every summer.
Perhaps the most surprising herpetological out-of-towner we had around our place was a good-sized pickerel frog that Joanie discovered in a bed of irises near a water spigot. Nearly always found near “spring-fed” streams, pickerels aren’t that common in the central portions of Indiana, but this one apparently liked to be pampered. Joanie filled a shallow clay dish with fresh water every day for it, and we came to expect to see the frog sitting in it like a tiny hot tub, its face frozen in a frog grin, whether it be intentional or not.
A few cool nights ago, one which brought us frost, we realized that the frog, like our hummingbirds and orioles, had moved on. Instead of finding the pickerel in his pool, Joanie found a thirsty toad instead.
This story, of course, could have been written about the abundance of political and social problems we are so preoccupied with now, but once again I’ve written about the natural world, for at least, our frogs and toads didn’t seem to argue much.