I fell down a rabbit hole of toad photography one Monday this May. I set out with my camera and journal to sit on a shady bench under my backyard willow. And I did. The sounds of amphibians coming from the pond were loud! I had to find out who was making so much noise. It was American Toads calling for mates. I snuck up to the pond edge, taking a step every time the sound rose and stopping every time silence fell. I would pause and let them settle into my presence, and they’d start calling again. And so it went, pretty quickly, until, I was squatting at shoreline eye to eye with the toads.
Only the males call. Each May, the toads come to the pond to call for girls, breed and breed and breed and then retreat to the gardens and woodlands they call home. I can see eggs laid on the water surface in ropes of black pearls. Frogs and toads prefer vernal ponds where there are no fish. I wonder how quickly these eggs will become sustenance for fish, bullfrogs, whoever else may be interested. The next day the eggs are still there. “I’d love to photograph tadpoles,” I thought to myself. Through some research, I found that the eggs hatch in about three days. The thought crosses my mind that if I raised some, I’d get to watch the whole process. I casually mentioned it to my brother. He says, “Do it! What have you got to lose?! If you tire of the project, you can just put them back where you found them.”
That’s how it came to be that I found myself with a bucket collecting tadpoles on a Friday morning. At first glance, the eggs I’d previously marveled at were gone. I thought a hungry fish beat me to it. I walked along the shore, searching for others, eventually returning to the spot I’d seen them. I scooped some algae, thinking they may have floated underneath. Dozens upon dozens of the most petite tadpoles filled my bucket! I added more pond water, removed some mosquito larvae and dragonfly nymphs (I think), and I was on my way.
The next day I set up a ten-gallon aquarium that I’d kept from a time when I raised mice for a local barn owl reintroduction project. Two to three inches of pond water, some algae and duckweed with several rocks from the yard and a screen over the top completed the habitat. I had to thin my collection to fit the size of my enclosure. I scooped out at least fifty (!) tadpoles and gently submerged them back where I’d found them underneath a mat of algae. Nine tadpoles remained. Along with three unidentifiable minuscule fish fry, a few crawling water beetle larvae and some unknown squiggle larvae (similar to mosquito larvae, but much smaller).
I am captivated by these guys who sit on a small table in my kitchen. Because I name all of my backyard wildlife and I cannot tell them apart, they are collectively named Tads and Pollies. I feed them parboiled spinach from my garden daily in addition to refreshing their algae and pond water weekly.
I spent an inordinate amount of time at the side of their tank. They are wonderfully distracting.
There is a clear gelatinous covering over their small bodies. Their beady little black eyes are distinct. They have a flat, wide face reminiscent of a nurse shark.
Two and a half weeks after I brought them in, their legs sprout. At first, you have to look closely because they are small enough to be obscured by their thick tails. In just four days, their legs are too big to be hidden any longer and are bent at the ankles, like toad legs.
One week after their back legs sprout, their front legs appear. They now have lungs and are coming out of the water up onto the rocks. No longer tadpoles, my Tads and Pollies are now toadlets. They will digest their tails as they complete their metamorphosis. They do not eat through this stage. Once their tails are gone, and they are tiny toads, they will eat live prey only. It is time for them to go back to the wild. The fish made it to be released, too.
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