Should I be flattered?

… or, what?

Hearing some activity from the nearby pond and it being a warm night, I decided to grab the camera, with just the Mamiya 80mm macro attached, and go take a peek at what was going on. Just so you know, all of the photos here were captured in less than forty minutes – one of those effortless excursions.

On getting close, it became apparent that all of the noise was emanating from just one source – well, one species – and that species was the American toad (Anaxyrus americanus.) It took me a moment on drawing up to the water’s edge to spot any individuals, which seems amusing in retrospect.

American toad Anaxyrus americanus perched in weed bed
It didn’t take long at all to realize that the pond’s edges were brimming with them, both in and out of the water, and as intent as they were on fulfilling their propagational duties, they were paying little heed to my presence. And it got worse.

American toad Anaxyrus americanus calling from weed bed
Capturing them in mid-call was remarkably easy, even as I was perched on a steep bank trying not to slide into the water while focusing on them by the light of the headlamp. But as I walked around the water’s edge, it became clear that I had to watch where I set foot very carefully, because as I said, they were intent on other things. No, not plural – just one other thing.

pair of American toads Anaxyrus americanus during courtship
The downward angle is actually indicative of how close they were; the darker female had just hopped across my sandal as I was photographing a different individual. The paler one is a male, and only moments later he attempted to close the deal, but she shrugged him off with a series of ‘chuckling’ protests – lucky you, I decided to record some audio on my smutphone, and you’ll hear this sound (from a different rejecting female) as the recording gets a little quieter near the 4 second mark. Mind you, it also gets louder, much louder, because another at my feet started sounding off and I was able to hold the phone less than a half meter from her, so be warned.

mating calls of American toads Anaxyrus americanus

I feel I should tell you, below is the solo artist from that recording, as I put the phone away and aimed the camera for the next round of calls.

American toad Anaxyrus americanus calling
The toads weren’t the only species out, but I was a little surprised to see this one. Still, its timing was pretty good, even if it was just a few meters too far away from the bulk of the activity.

northern water snake Nerodia sipedon sipedon at water's edge
This is a northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon,) fairly good sized at roughly a meter in length, harmless to humans but certainly a high-level enemy of the toads. I had just told Mr Bugg yesterday that I didn’t think the snakes would be out yet, so this demonstrates my powers of prognostication. But as I said, if you’re gonna stir yourself for spring, do it while the toads are plentiful and preoccupied.

tail of northern water snake Nerodia sipedon sipedon showing identifying markings
This image was taken specifically to show how to differentiate the northern water snake from the almost-identical banded water snake: the banded water snake maintains the crossing bands/stripes all the way to the tail, while the northern sports broken bands like these towards the rear of the body. Of course, it always helps if the snake has cooperatively left its tail in plain sight and not hidden within pondside litter or under the water, but both species are harmless, so differentiation is only for the pedantic bloggers.

I also made a few attempts to catch the very active tongue while extended, because the snake wasn’t preoccupied with getting some action and was thus suspicious of the way the light kept moving around, so it sampled the air trying to get a baseline on what was happening. Catching the tongue isn’t as easy as imagined, since it seems like it remains out flickering long enough, but I have plenty of frames, of this and other individuals, where it has retracted as soon as I trip the shutter. Tonight it took three or four attempts.

northern water snake Nerodia sipedon sipedon showing tongue
Now, I hung around for a little bit to see if either the snake would move a little further along in pursuit of the many toads, or if a toad would blunder into the snake’s radius. I didn’t have long to wait as a toad came hopping along the shoreline in my direction – in fact, directly towards me, as it quickly sought and surmounted my sandaled foot and perched there, this to all appearances being very deliberate.

American toad Anaxyrus americanus perched on author's foot
The thing is, this was the third time this evening that a toad clambered atop my foot, and they weren’t that thick on the ground. I had a brief suspicion that they were mistaking the dark rubber for a female, but this was dispelled by remembering that the first, at least, had demonstrated it was itself female, so this didn’t fit. And then this latest one further dispelled this.

American toad Anaxyrus americanus calling from author's foot
Yes, that’s the toad actually calling from her position on my foot. I was remaining motionless, mostly, but the headlamp was swinging around and the camera flash was going off, not to mention the foot was likely flexing at least a little from shifting weight and balance, so the toad had plenty of clues that I was not a rock. So, should I be flattered, or put those sandals in for a wash-up?

I waited, in fact bent down now with the smutphone to try and get head-on-video of the toad calling, but possibly the proximity of the phone (or her disdain for Samsung) prevented her from calling further, and she soon abandoned its perch – not in the direction of the snake just a little offshore, which by now had become too suspicious and was slowly nosing away. I decided to wrap it up for the night and started back.

But I took a small side trip (which I’ll explain in a moment,) and ended up alongside some overflow channels that often retained water, catching a movement therein, which revealed a successful couple.

pair of American toads Anaxyrus americanus in amplexus within water
That’s a pair in amplexus, the act of the male grasping the female around the abdomen and riding there until she entered the water and began depositing eggs, which he would then fertilize. Which they were, in fact, in the process of.

pair of American toads Anaxyrus americanus in amplexus, showing egg string
That little beaded string is the egg mass, and they can get quite large – I suspect I caught them towards the beginning of the process. Ain’t reproduction grand?

Heading back to Walkabout Estates, I paused at a roadside ditch because I thought I’d heard the call of a bullfrog, and didn’t even have to search, it being almost as obvious as it could be.

large American bullfrog Lithobates catesbeianus
This is an American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus,) many times larger than the American toads, but you don’t have to take my word for it, since it was complacent enough, and I was slick enough, to get my foot into the picture again.

American bullfrog Lithobates catesbeianus with author's foot for scale
I think that should serve as a decent comparison. Safe to say, had this one hopped onto my foot, I wouldn’t be going anywhere, and might have been walking with a limp afterwards.

But there was one more thing that happened tonight (well, it looks like it was last night to be accurate, as midnight approaches.) On the way over to the pond, I’d switched on the headlamp and caught some light high in the trees. I had to dodge back and forth to ensure that it wasn’t one of the various streetlamps in the area shining through from a distance, but it blinked on and off and shifted a little bit, so I was certain that I was seeing the reflections from the eyes of something. They vanished as I drew closer and didn’t reappear, so I abandoned that quest to go find toads. On the way back, I tried again, and saw it again, so this time I took the softbox off the flash, boosted to full power, and fired off a frame.

eyes reflecting from high in tree
The range was too great, especially since the macro flash isn’t the most powerful thing that I own, but I did at least get the reflection, and a hint of the trees. Once back home, I brought the image into GIMP and boosted the brightness a bit at full resolution to see what was hidden in the shadows.

enhanced inset of previous image showing North American raccoon Procyon lotor
That’s just enough detail to make out the side of a head, with one rounded ear pointing to lower left, this being a North American raccoon (Procyon lotor.) It’s funny how few I see in the immediate area, because it seems like it should be ideal for them, but as you can see, this one was definitely being shy, and sneaky enough to peek out with only one eye.

So yeah, productive enough to start making up for winter. Everyone rejoice!

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