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Northland toad time begins in mid-May

A gray phase of an American toad. Note the warty bumps on the skin and the short hind legs. Toads are a variety of other phases: brown, reddish-brown and dark. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 3
American toads in the water for breeding. Note the one with the enlarged singing sac, helping to resonate their trilling call. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 3
A string of American toad eggs. Eggs are not in a gelatinous mass as seen with frogs. (Photo by Larry Weber)3 / 3

It is a bit difficult to call any April normal after the springs we’ve had in recent years, but what we experienced this year would qualify as unique. During the first half of the month we recorded a temperature that averaged 45 degrees, far above the norm, with the warmest day of the month 70 degrees on April 15.

Not only did we have these mild temperatures early in the month, we also received no snow. With little rain, it was quite dry. The area wetlands responded to the temperatures and I noted ice out on ponds, swamps and lakes by April 10, considerably before usual. Residents of these sites also responded and I observed muskrats and beavers swimming after a cold-season confinement. Ducks, geese and the local loon were quick to get onto the open waters. I heard the early spring frog trio of wood frogs, chorus frogs and spring peepers all calling during the first week of this month.

And then the second half of April came to us.

The chilly temperatures along with some snow, even closing schools one day, came when we thought all that was over. The second half was about 5 degrees colder than the first. Such temperatures were also often accompanied with gusty winds from the north or east. While the warmest reading of the month was in the first half, the coldest happened in the last week, 23 degrees on April 27. Again, the residents of the Northland responded.

Several insect-eating birds had returned in the earlier days of the month. In mild conditions, they found food. Now the same birds — robins, hermit thrushes, sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, kinglets and phoebes — found themselves in a position where food was harder to locate. Some, like the sparrows, were able to find seeds.

But what do insectivorous birds do when temperatures are in the 20s or 30s with wind and maybe snow? I went out to find the answer.

I visited a lake during these days and observed their behavior. The phoebes, warblers and kinglets were at the edge of the water, feeding on aquatic insects. The bay was out of the wind and with the water being warmer than the ambient temperature, they were able to find food and shelter. In like manner, robins and hermit thrushes took advantage of the wet time of rain-snow mix that caused an earthworm movement. These traveling worms were caught on the exposed pavement of the road and the birds feasted. I referred to the snowy day of April 26 as “road robin” day since hundreds of these thrushes congregated on the roads to enjoy the earthworm bonanza.

But what about the frogs? Waking, calling and breeding in early April does have its problems. The pond waters are quite chilly and with the night temperatures dropping, ice can form on their small wet homes. I noted this as I walked in the coolness of late April. But as we entered the month of May, during the first week of May (not the first day), the frog songs returned to the nocturnal scene after slowing in the cold.

Quickly after days of 50s or 60s came to us, the trio of wood frog, chorus frog and spring peeper were back again. As I walked to the swamp shortly after dark, I heard their calls loud, almost as though there was no chilly interruption. But there was a difference.

In this wetland, the vernal trio had become a quartet. As I paused to listen, I noted the snoring-like call of the north leopard frog. The season was moving on. These four aquatic singers represented half of the local anurans (frogs and toads). Others will soon follow: American toad, gray tree frog, green frog and mink frog. The first two of this list will commence to calling in May while the other two are summer singers.

Now in mid-May, another sound will emanate from the ponds, swamps and shallows of lakes: the trill of the American toad. This varies in different years, but mid-May is often the beginning of toad time. Toads are the least aquatic of the group, living entirely on land except for breeding. A toad is not a frog. They have rough warty skin and short hind legs, unable to jump like a frog. But each year at this time in May, they return to their home origins and arrive at the ponds. For several days or maybe a week, they give their high-pitched trilling sound that gets proper attention from mates. During this short breeding time, the trilling may continue during the days and nights until all the egg laying has been accomplished. Once this breeding is complete, they return to the terrestrial existence and are quiet again. Unlike the frogs’ gelatinous mass of eggs, the toads string their eggs in long rope-like threads.

Soon small dark tadpoles will be seen in these wetlands and in two months, tiny toads will appear in our yards and gardens. But it begins now in mid-May.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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