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All toads on deck! July 8, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in critters.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were relaxing on our deck the evening of July Fourth with our beloved black German shepherd Shiloh. The chili lights were on, the lightning bugs (aka fireflies) were putting on their own fireworks in the backyard, we were each enjoying our beverage of choice while listening to the whir of fireworks in neighboring communities. Life was good.

But it was about to get better. Suddenly, I saw a small creature hopping along the side of the deck. “Silence, look! It’s a toad! A toad is on our deck!!!” The toad, obviously an Einstein among amphibians, hopped determinedly to the lowest-hanging chili light on the deck, and then stopped. It clearly realized that lights draw bugs, and, for a toad, bugs mean dinner. It could easily reach any bug that came within the low-lying light’s orbit.

Silence and I are amateur herpetologists, so we love reptiles and amphibians. I kept toads as pets as a child, and they proved surprisingly loyal friends, believe it or not. But there was a more important reason why I was so happy to see the toad.

Amphibians like toads, frogs and salamanders are environmental first-responders. If something’s amiss in the environment, they seem to have the fewest defenses to combat it, and are the first creatures whose populations drop in response. To see this healthy, entrepreneurial toad on our deck was reassuring. And, of course, we hope it ate a Big Mac-size portion of mosquitos!

Sailing on stilts. October 4, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was accompanying Silence Dogood into the nearby town of Kutztown, PA when a great blue heron flew across the road. This wasn’t surprising, since there are some large-ish ponds just out of sight of the road, but it seldom happens, and our friend Ben was thrilled, as I always am when I see a heron. It’s easy to recognize them, even if you’re driving and supposed to actually be watching where you’re going. That’s because great blues in flight look sort of like horizontal lightning bolts, with their long necks sticking out in front and their stiltlike legs sticking straight out in back, making their silhouette a zigzag pattern.

Most people don’t think of herons as backyard feeder birds, unless, like our neighbor, they happen to have a water garden featuring some of the herons’ favorite foods, like koi, goldfish, and frogs. (For some reason, he’s not as fond of herons as our friend Ben is.) I’ve several times been thrilled when I was in the backyard with one of our dogs and a great blue blasted off virtually in front of me, sailing over the trees with its great wings outspread and its long legs dangling. (This is takeoff mode, the legs aren’t yet in straight-out-behind mode, probably because the heron was planning to alight in a tree and wait for me and the dog to stop rudely interrupting its lunch and go back inside.) 

Anyway, I was reminded of herons yet again when Silence stopped by the library, and I saw that they were selling A Pocket Guide to Pennsylvania Frogs & Toads (Walter E. Meshaka, Jr. & Joseph T. Collins, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2010) to benefit youth programs. As a lover of all things herpetological* from earliest childhood, our friend Ben overcame my initial sticker shock (five dollars!) and left the library with a wonderfully informative, beautifully photographed (by Suzanne L. Collins) booklet I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in frogs and toads, wherever they live.

Having just seen the heron, I took a moment to mourn the passing of numerous bullfrogs, pickerel frogs, and Northern leopard frogs from the pond next door at the hands—well, beaks—of hungry herons. Then I decided to write this post about the great blue heron for folks who might not get to see them, or at least not often and up close.

Whenever I want to find out more about a particular bird, my first stop is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/). It’s a one-stop reference for all the basic information on 585 species of North American birds. Just go to their All About Birds section, and you can find a particular species or identify a bird if you don’t know or aren’t sure what it is. Here’s what it said about the great blue heron (along with, of course, lots more information; head on over if you want to know more):

* Great blues live year-round throughout most of the U.S., and they can also be found in the summer and during fall migration in much of Canada and the Rockies. They also winter from Mexico south through Central America.

* These are big birds. They range in length from 38.2 to 53.9 inches, with wingspans from 65.7 to 79.1 inches, and they weigh from 74.1 to 88.2 ounces. Grabbing a calculator, our friend Ben sees that this means that the biggest herons would be 4 1/2 feet long with a 6.6-foot wingspan, and they’d weigh a whopping 5 1/2 pounds. (All flighted birds are designed to be light so they can become and remain airborne; even their bones are hollow to reduce weight. Picture a 4 1/2-foot-tall person who weighed 5 1/2 pounds. Yikes!) By comparison, a bald eagle’s wingspan is 80.3 inches, just over an inch longer than the biggest great blue heron’s. 

* Great blue herons aren’t really blue; the closest they come is blue-grey on the wings, back and belly. Their basic body color is grey. An all-white form, the great white heron, lives around shallow marine waters in southernmost Florida, the Caribbean, and the Yucatan Peninsula.

* You can identify a “blue” great blue by its dramatic head: bright yellow eyes with black plumes extending behind them, bold black “Groucho eyebrows” over each eye, extending to the back of the head, a long, pointed bill that’s grey-black above and yellow-orange below, and a long, shaggy whitish “beard” hanging down from under the head to cover the long, S-shaped throat.  

* Though great blue herons prefer fish, they’re opportunists who’ll eat field mice (voles) and other small mammals as well as frogs, reptiles, birds, and invertebrates. I love Cornell’s description of the heron’s behavior as “stalking.” The site explains that the heron “walks slowly, stands and stabs prey with a quick lunge of the bill.”

* Great blue herons usually nest in colonies in marshy habitats near lakes, ponds and seacoasts, but some colonies live away from water, and some herons nest alone.

This was all interesting, but it didn’t tell our friend Ben what I most wanted to know: Why do water garden owners so often put heron statues in or beside their ponds, when the last thing they want is for a hungry heron to drop by for an unplanned meal? (And trust me, once a heron has found a water garden, it will continue to visit until the pond’s surface is either covered with netting—not quite the serene, beautiful sight the owner had in mind!—or the last fish is gone.) 

Is it simply because herons are so striking and are associated with water, sort of an aesthetic tribute like the deer statues that are all over the place around here? (Doubtless the deer-statue folks would reach for their rifles if they saw real deer in their yards eating their flowers, veggies, trees and shrubs!) Or are herons territorial, so that seeing one already in the pond might keep others away?

I’ve never seen more than one heron at any pond, so I was leaning toward the latter explanation, but after reading that they’re colony nesters, I wasn’t sure. It was time for more research. Heading to my good friend Google, our friend Ben was next directed to the water-gardens-information.com website, which has an entire section on keeping herons out of your pond. (If you’re a water gardener, check it out at http://www.water-gardens-information.com/herons.html.) For the purposes of my research, here’s the relevant section:

“Those who have ponds claim that realistic statues of herons deter these birds because the heron is territorial and when they see one standing beside a pond, the real bird won’t come in. Mind you, when the bird standing beside the pond hasn’t moved in three years, the real bird kind of loses its concern. I’m told that statues with bobbing heads work well for a time. I know several gardeners who regularly move their statues around the garden making a bit of a game of it.”

Thank you, Doug Green, whoever you are! It’s hard to beat in-depth information presented in an entertaining manner.  

So, I guess now our friend Ben and Silence will be waiting for a heron bobblehead to appear by our neighbor’s pond. Meanwhile, keep your eyes peeled for a real heron. If you’re not a water gardener, they’re a wonderful sight. When I’m driving, I often see them standing stock-still in a pond or on a bridge over a pond, “stalking,” as Cornell would put it. They’re so still they might as well be statues, but they’re a lot more interesting!

* To quote A Pocket Guide to Pennsylvania Frogs & Toads,Herpetology is the academic study of amphibians, reptiles, turtles, and crocodilians.” Ha! I’ll bet you thought turtles and crocs were reptiles. I know I did.

Toad in the hole! July 10, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were out doing some last-minute planting last night. I’d just finished watering in the new plants in one of our raised veggie beds, and Silence was putting the last few plants in another, when I picked up a now-empty 6-inch round coir (coconut fiber) pot to put in our compost heap. To my astonishment, a small toad was lurking under the pot!

Seizing the opportunity (and the toad), our friend Ben placed the toad on the moist soil of the veggie bed and put the pot back upside-down on top of it, creating an instant low-rent toad house. I sprinkled some water on the pot to moisten the coir and add more cooling dampness for the toad within.

Now there was just one problem: No door in the toad house. Our friend Ben assumes that the toad could have pushed up the side of the coir pot to get out, or burrowed out through the soft soil of the bed, but I wanted to make sure. So I took one of the small rectangular transplant pots I’d just emptied and propped one side of the coir pot up on it, with the opening of the transplant pot facing inward so the toad could have an antechamber if desired.

“Do you think the toad will really stay there?” Silence asked.

Well, who knows. And unfortunately, I don’t want to risk driving it off by lifting up the pot to check up on it. But at least I know it chose the pot itself, so maybe it likes it. And wouldn’t it be great to have an ally helping out with the organic pest patrol? Fingers crossed that the little fellow sticks around.

Toad in the road. June 26, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. In the immortal words of our friend Edith Eddleman, “Heartaches, nothin’ but heartaches.” The unending rains here in scenic Pennsylvania have at least been good for water-loving creatures like amphibians. Our friend Ben and I have seen two toads here at Hawk’s Haven, one large and one smaller. Typically, female toads are larger than males, so we’ve been hoping they were a pair, though one might simply be younger and still growing. We love toads, and have been not just delighted to see these but anticipating a toad revival.

Our hopes may have been (literally) crushed this morning. I was taking our puppy Shiloh across the road to get the newspaper, and was so distracted between watching for traffic and trying to pry a hickory nut she’d somehow picked up out of her jaws, that I didn’t notice the splat of blood and guts on the road until we were on our way back across. It was small, and I assumed it was a mouse or other small rodent until my brain caught up with my eyes and I realized that there was no sign of fur or a tail. It had to be a toad.

To paraphrase John Donne, every toad’s death diminishes me. It was with much slower steps that Shiloh and I returned to the house. And then, to add insult to injury, it started to rain again.

Heartaches, and nothin’ but.

         ‘Til next time,

                     Silence

Attack of the killer everything. June 13, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It appears that I’ve unleashed a series of horror stories that would make Stephen King cringe. It all started when I wrote a post called “GAAAHHHH!!! Bug up skirt!” about a hoverfly that had somehow crawled up my skirt while I was outside doing garden chores. This brought about some truly horrific revelations from other bug-incident victims who’d discovered bees, wasps, assassin bugs, and God-knows-whatall up their pants, skirts, shirts, and etc., usually under extremely humiliating circumstances.

Then today Aunt Debbi posted on her wonderful blog, Aunt Debbi’s Garden (http://www.auntdebbisgarden.blogspot.com/), about how she was watering plants last night when a toad jumped up her pants leg. One of her readers mentioned being attacked in a similar manner by a cicada killer.

Okay, we now have bees, wasps, assassin bugs, cicada killers, and toads. I didn’t think it could get much worse—maybe a bat-in-hair incident—but it did. And boy, did it ever. Charlotte at The Great Big Vegetable Challenge (http://www.greatbigvegchallenge.blogspot.com/) revealed that she had gotten a rat up her trousers.

Rats! RATS!!!!!!!!!!!!!! RAAAAAAAAAATS!!!!!!!!! Not that I’d be afraid if a rat crawled up my trousers or anything. I’m sure it would be no worse than, say, being boiled alive by cannibals or staked out over an anthill and covered with honey. But I digress.

If anyone out there has an equally or even more horrific story to share, I enthusiastically recommend that you contact The National Enquirer. They’d probably even pay you, especially if it somehow involved aliens and/or Elvis. As for me, I’m sure I’ll still be having nightmares when I’m wheeled to the nursing home, doubtless shrieking—or at least cackling—”Rats! RAAAAAATS!!!” the whole way. The things we gardeners are forced to endure!

              ‘Til next time,

                        Silence 

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