Wintertime Reads – Three Good Bird Books for Gift-Giving

i Dec 5th No Comments by

By Annie Runyon, Board Member

This summer I received a beautiful gift. The Bluebird Effect, Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) written and illustrated by Julie Zickefoose. Ms. Zickefoose writes about her life with the wild birds she rescues and releases. She blends her own personal observations with natural history, using humor, words and art. Her sketches reflect her careful observation, and her watercolor paintings color her stories beautifully.

Reading The Bluebird Effect prompted me to reread two beloved older, but still in print, books about bird life with illustrations by the authors.

Joe Hutto’s Illumination in the Flatwoods, A Season Living Among the Wild Turkey (The Lyon’s Press, 1995) is a companion to the PBS Television Special My Life as a Turkey.

Bernd Heinrich’s Ravens in Winter (Vintage Books 1991) is one of many beautiful books written by an this extraordinary academic field biologist.

Each book offers careful observation, humor and thoughtful questions yet to be answered. Perfect for a winter’s evening read, and for a good gift.

Changeable Mantleslugs In the Trees

i Oct 4th No Comments by

by Annie Runyon (photos and sketches by the author)

Back in the fall of 2011, I decided to collect a few slugs and snails from my yard to study. I needed to illustrate “Slippery, Stealthy Slugs” written by Susan Carl for Wildlife in North Carolina magazine.

Top left to right: white-lipped globe snail, 2 three-toothed snails. Lower left to right: sow bug, and several three-band garden slugs.

The three-tooth snails laid a few eggs in the moss and I had tiny snails after a while. The white-lipped globe snail, Globe, was a bold explorer and loved to munch on mushrooms. The juvenile three-band garden slugs were speedy and devoured fresh lettuce.

One chilly evening in January 2012, I went outside to bring in firewood and discovered a handsome slug snuggled in the woodpile. I placed it in my terrarium. It was quite different from the non-native species I had collected.

Art Bogan, from the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, and Megan Paustian, from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, helped me identify this native as a changeable mantleslug, (Megapallifera mutabilis) … or Slide for short.

This is Globe.

The leopard slug  was too large, active and slimy to live comfortably in my small terrarium. After drawing, I released the leopard on a holly trunk.

This is Slide climbing onto a stick.

Here is a sketch of Slide’s face. 2 long eye-stalks look about, while 2 short stalks feel-taste-smell below. Slide’s face looks a bit cat-like, mouth closed.

Slide seemed upset by the other non-native slugs. Slide moved to a corner, produced copious slime, scrunched up and stank off!  So I put the slugs in separate terrariums, and soon released the non-natives. Slide and Globe lived peacefully together …

Changeable mantleslugs (Megapallifera mutabilis) forage for fungi and lichen in the tree canopy. I gathered fallen branches with fungi for Slide to eat. These native slugs shelter together in moist nooks and crannies in the trees and under logs on the ground. They stretch way out and twist all about; gliding up, over and under with grace. Mantleslugs sometimes contract into a hard lump when frightened. All slugs breath through an opening, called the pneumostome, located on their right side, shown in my sketch below.

On February 11, 2012 at midnight, Slide laid a cluster of eggs (more than 20) in my terrarium. Then she rested. (I figure I can call this hermaphrodite a female while laying eggs!) Next morning she stretched and nibbled on lichen. Slide laid more eggs on February 26, 2012 and on March 9, 2012 her first eggs began to hatch.

Slide lays her second cluster of eggs.

The first egg cluster hatches.   Baby slugs!

Slide and her babies, of various ages, eat together.

Slide continued to lay egg clusters for the next three months. Whenever the weather was wet and warm, I would release her babies onto my maple trees where other slugs roamed. I finally released Slide after she laid her sixth egg cluster. At midnight on May 4, 2012, Slide glided up a big wet maple and disappeared in the canopy. Her offspring are growing and doing well.

Slide’s offspring climb…

…and huddle together in the backyard.

Certain predators are happy to thin the backyard slug herd!

Look in mesic wooded habitats (well-supplied with moisture) for these handsome native slugs. In the morning after a rain, you may find them moving down the trees. During the night, look for them climbing up to search for food and mates.

Learning to Cope…

i Sep 3rd 1 Comment by

By John Gerwin

I have loved the song of the Gray Tree Frog for as many years as I can remember. And I have been not-so-secretly envious of our neighbors up the street, who have had 2-3 of them in their front yard for all the years we’ve lived here. But that was it for our neighborhood. Just a few frogs in their front yard, singing gloriously in weather like this year, but none elsewhere.  I was whining about this to Jesse one day and he said “Not a problem! I have 100’s of tadpoles. I’ll bring you some, and you can raise and release them.” And so he did, and so I did. It wasn’t difficult, as I had a few extra rain barrels, and all I had to do was toss some “fish food” into the water once or twice/day.  And so one of the barrels became the tree frog nursery.  By August, there were ~100 teenager frogs heading out into the world on their own. I was amazed when two days later I found a Garter Snake alongside the small pond we have by our front porch, which is where I had placed a few dozen of these youngsters. How do they know?

Over the ensuing two years, the gray tree frogs, and their namesake, expanded.  The species has been thought of as two species for a long time – frogologists have known of vocal and chromosomal differences for many years – and those in the know, well, knew.  Other than voice or genes, the two species are indistinguishable. But it seems only recently that all this has been formalized, and the rest of us now know “ours” as the Cope’s Gray Tree Frog.

We began hearing several individuals along the edge of our neighborhood lake last year. And this year, many more – sometimes I can hear six individuals calling at once. And, this year, we finally had some in our front yard. I was able to get a variety of pictures, and one decent video/audio of one singing away below my home office window.

This is clearly a great year to be a frog, and each night that we walk the dog, we are finding up to 5 species of frogs. And to our delight, these include both Cope’s Gray and Green tree frogs – we have found (and moved) at least 4 gray’s this year (vs. one in the previous 8 years). The Cope’s have a nice splash of yellow (or orange) in the groin area, which is, as you might expect, a bit tough to see unless you pry open some frog legs. Which is precisely what I did the other night, to get some pictures.  I was quite elated to get these images and just to be fondling another tree frog – they will often sit perched on my finger while I admire them. After finishing my frog groin exposé, I went inside to get ready for bed, which included removing my contacts. It was very soon thereafter that I was reminded that these tree frogs have a potent little, mucous-membrane irritating skin toxin – their way of saying “Hey, we hardly know each other!” “Mucous-membrane” would include the eyes; and boy did they burn for a while (about an hour).  All I could do was keep rinsing with cold water, and wait (oh, and complain vociferously).

I have found surprisingly little info reported on the Internet about the toxin itself. Indeed, via a “frog forum” where a few folks wrote in to describe their own membranous experiences, one person posted a link to a research poster from 2011 that claims to be a report of the first chemical characterization of the peptide contained within the skin secretion. That peptide is the main culprit. I found this intriguing to say the least.   There is so much for us to learn…….. Which could include listening to what your Mother told you – “please wash your hands before you…….”

I have included 4 images. There are a few more, which you can view at this link:

The link will take you to my Dropbox account where I have set up a folder for this blog. Included is the R-rated “thigh” shot (not to be missed….). I’ve also included a video with audio of a gray tree frog singing on one of our tables out front. This individual, also in some of the images, appears to be missing one (the left) eye. The video is ~50 seconds. The filesize is large at 25MB so can’t be attached!

We found, and I promptly fondled, another Gray TFrg tonight while walking the dog. Just sitting in the intersection of Melbourne/Ravenwood/Grove. I must say, the really blend in well with the asphalt. I moved it……. to the side of a tree of course.


i Aug 5th No Comments by

By John Gerwin

I love serendipity, especially when it involves nature.  One of my former field technicians, who worked for me for four different seasons, still lives and works in Raleigh (and pet sits for us now and then).  Sarah and Kathy are in a book club together, and Kathy had asked her if she would help pull some ivy vines. So the other day, Sarah drove over very early in the morning, and was rather excited as she came in, exclaiming “Come see this adorable moth on my car!”  So we did, and indeed, it was adorable, and then some. Adorable is a good word because this moth was clinging to a door, her car door, and had done so while Sarah drove from her house near Cameron Village to ours. Sarah proudly announced: “I drove really slow so it wouldn’t get blown off.”  Now, that’s a good field tech!  (But can you imagine the look from a police officer when hearing THAT explanation…..?).

When a moth, (or butterfly), emerges from its pupa and gets it wings stretched and ready, the animal is “fresh” and looks its best.  Over time, scales will be scraped off, the wing edges become a bit tattered, perhaps a bird has taken a chunk of wing out, and such an individual looks rather ‘weathered’. The moth on Sarah’s car door had clearly emerged recently, as it looked spectacular.

The images show an Oakworm Moth, a fairly common “species.” This individual is a female (and the “head” shot reminds me of something from Alice in Wonderland). Upon checking a couple good Internet sources, I found there is some intriguing uncertainty about what we call the taxonomy, and “relatedness,” of this and other similar species.  As we develop more sophisticated tools to study nature, and how species have evolved, our idea of what constitutes a “species” has evolved as well.

I couldn’t quite tell how many species of “oakworm” moths are in our area, but it looked like 3. They are in the genus Anisota. The one pictured appears to be the Spiny Oakworm type. I conferred with 1 entomologist with the Natural Heritage program, and this is the species he thinks it is.  He also relayed that this species prefers a drier oak-hickory forest, which would include Post Oak. Post Oak is a common oak around Raleigh, at least in Avent West and nearby neighborhoods.

Oakworm Moth larvae feed on a variety of oak species. Adults are seen in our area primarily from late June through August.  An interesting behavior is that other Oakworm males fly during the day; whereas the Spiny will fly at night, and thus is generally the only Oakworm that is attracted to lights.  Females will fly day or night but are often seen during the day, when mating typically occurs. Another interesting tidbit is that this moth is also a “silkworm moth.” So, it is related to the Luna, Cecropia and Polyphemus moths; and helps explain the “no mouth” look – indeed, it has no mouth parts for feeding.  Silkworm moths do not feed as adults. As adults, they live about a week during which time they mate, the females lay eggs, and that’s it.

THIS JUST IN!  Gerwin found a larva getting ready to pupate…cool, huh?

Adventures with Fungus, Crayfish and Chiggers

i Jul 8th No Comments by

By Brandt (Wake Audubon Young Naturalist since 2010)

Participation in the Young Naturalists Club’s outings has given me some of the best adventures of my life. Take the last excursion, for example. We went on an over-night trip to explore and camp in the Uwharrie National Forest, an ancient and almost mystical place in the center of our state.  Mr. Gerwin and Mr. Sean were our intrepid leaders.  Their knowledge about every living thing we encountered was amazing.  My favorite discovery on the trail was the purple coral fungus, clavaria zollingeri:

Isn’t it cool?  I read that it grows in coniferous areas all across Canada and southward in mountain areas.  So that’s why we found it in the Uwharrie’s.

At a stream on our first hike, Lily, The Fearless,  and Sean showed me proper crayfish holding technique. It was the first time I ever held a crayfish. Mr. (or Mrs.?) Crayfish was a good size for a beginner – not big enough to pinch hard:

Camping was fun. We enjoyed roasted marshmallows over the campfire. One of my marshmallows turned into a chemistry experiment as it reduced itself to a black mass of carbon – I guess I toasted it a little TOO long. We were all tired out from the day, but it was hard to get to sleep because some of the neighbors were pretty noisy until late at night. Around 5 am we had a surprise visitor. A whip-poor-will flew right into our campsite and landed on the picnic bench! He gave a rousing serenade before flying off again. He must have received word that we were all disappointed about not hearing any Nightjars during the YNC Nightjar Survey at Jordan Lake. He made up for that!

On Day 2 of our trip, we visited the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness area. That’s a nice unspoiled area; a place where you can escape the crazy, noisy, hustle and bustle of modern life. We saw a great specimen of a Hognose Snake:

Even in these mountains, it was getting hot and sticky by the end of the trail. We all felt like Roger, the guide dog puppy, and wanted to cool off in the stream:

The one thing I would have liked to have missed on the trip were the chiggers. I’m still itching! The whole idea that a mite too small to see can unleash enzymes that turn parts of me into its personal protein smoothie is just gross. Dealing with the leftovers of its stylostome “straw” in one’s skin is maddening, to say the least.  Next time, I’ll be ready with more bug defenses.

I’m looking forward to the next YNC outing to Grandfather Mountain. I love the Boone area. See you there!

(The Wake Audubon Young Naturalist Club offers youth ages 12-18 opportunities to explore nature together.  Monthly outings include environmental service projects, local bird walks and full-day adventures from the mountains to the coast.)

April Showers Bring May Flowers

i Apr 17th No Comments by

By Annie Runyon

I found these longleaf cones (flowers) at Harris Lake this past week.

You can see the cluster of purple male cones (or catkins) above, and 2 female cones growing below the pointy growing tip of a new branch.

Our longleaf pine sprouted its first catkins in our yard this spring.

It has joined with all the other neighborhood pines, mostly loblolly and a few short leaf,

releasing clouds of bright yellow pollen into the air.

Now we know it is the tiny pollen grains from the oaks, red cedars and hickories that are likely causing our allergies … but the pine pollens are the bigger, showy ones that we notice. AND people are grumbling. POLLEN IS EVERYWHERE! This abundance assures these wind-pollinated trees that their cones will produce seeds, and that new tree seedlings will sprout.

Perhaps this generous dusting of protein-rich pollen seeping into the soil with April’s showers will also help to fertilize and nourish all of the surrounding plants. Perhaps pollen is a spring tonic for the whole forest.

2013 on the March

i Mar 8th No Comments by

By Jeff Beane

Holy cow—it’s March already.  If, like me, you’re wondering whatever happened to January and February, or to last year for that matter (or indeed, to the 1970s), you’d best get out there and start paying attention.  It may have been a cold month so far, but, speaking as one who has already lived through an embarrassingly large number of Marches, I can guarantee that it ain’t gonna stay that way for long.

Right now, Yellow Jessamine, Hepatica, and Trailing Arbutus are in bloom, Mink kits are being born, Great Horned Owls are feeding good-sized nestlings, and if the sun is shining you’ll see a Falcate Orangetip fluttering by if you’re not careful.  Purple Martins’ll be back any day now, Yellow-throated Warblers and Northern Rough-winged Swallows are already showing up, and as soon as there’s a warm day you’ll be seeing the first Eastern Tiger Swallowtails of the season.  Spotted Salamanders and most chorus frogs have already finished breeding, but you’ll still hear Spring Peepers on warm nights for the rest of the month.  American Toads and Pickerel Frogs started calling during that warm spell back in January, and they’ll finish their breeding as soon as it warms back up.  Several herring, shad, and sucker species have already begun their spring spawning runs.

In the Coastal Plain and Sandhills, the hardwood trees are starting to acquire leaves.  Tiger and Mabee’s salamanders have long since bred (in those places where there was enough water), and my telemetered Pine Snakes and Coachwhips will be emerging from their hibernacula any day now.  Southern Toads, Carpenter Frogs, and Southern Cricket Frogs are just about to start calling.  In just a week or two, Bachman’s Sparrows will be singing in the longleaf savannas.

In the Mountains?  Well, it’s still freezing up there, but the Wood Frogs snuck in their quick-and-dirty breeding season back during those January and February rains; you’ll have to look for their egg masses if you want to see them now.  Once the snow melts you might see a Bloodroot already blooming and hear a peeper or two (or even a Mountain Chorus Frog if you happen to be in Cherokee County and get really lucky with the weather).

If you don’t get out there soon, you’ll miss Trout Lilies completely, Eastern Cottontails will already have had their first litters, peak shorebird migration will be past, and you’ll miss the first emerging Luna Moths and the first returning Chimney Swifts.  Gray Fox pups are being born, too.  Before the end of the month, you’re going to be seeing bluets and violets blooming, Palamedes Swallowtails flying, and Brown-headed Nuthatches laying eggs.

If you start hearing Whip-poor-wills, Chuck-will’s-Widow’s, White-eyed Vireos, and Fowler’s Toads, you’ve probably already waited too long.  It’s basically April, dude (or dudette).

Of course, if you happen to be a crappie fisherman (or –woman) or a Gopher Frog biologist, you’re already out there and you know all this already.

You have to get out early in the year, and get down low to the ground, to see and smell the tiny flowers of Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens).  But it’s worth it.

Trees in the Coastal Plain are festooned with the blooms of Yellow Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) this time of year.  Just look.  Don’t eat.

Upland Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris feriarum) breed in temporary wetlands in winter.  If you haven’t heard them yet this year, you may have already missed them.

Right now is peak breeding season for the Carolina Gopher Frog (Rana [Lithobates] capito).  With most of its habitat long gone, many biologists believe this rare Longleaf Pine specialist is doomed in North Carolina.

A clutch of Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) eggs in a small dead snag.  This tiny, charismatic bird’s philosophy is breed early and avoid the rush.

The beautiful and familiar Luna Moth (Actias luna) can have three broods a year in North Carolina.  The first one emerges this month.

If you want to see Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in bloom this year, it’s time to start looking.  Even in good years, the flowers don’t last long.

What Hummingbirds Can Teach You

i Feb 26th No Comments by

In these cold winter months, it is important to have a positive mindset. Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, and the lack of sunshine can really take its toll. Sometimes a change of perspective is all it takes to bring a person out of the winter doldrums. Being a bird lover, I often think about things from the perspective of the winged creatures. This may seem a bit weird, but can bring about some interesting enlightenments.

(photo by Michael Hogan, posted on Cornell website)

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about hummingbirds and how thinking like them could improve our lives. Here are some reasons why.
Cleanliness and Confidence
Hummingbirds are meticulously clean to the point that if they were human, they would probably all be considered OCD. This is important for them because diseases spread amongst birds very easily. Cleaning themselves after feeding and bathing in commonly visited areas is a means of self-preservation. Good hygiene keeps them alive.
Perhaps because they are so clean and good looking, hummingbirds are also extremely confident. They defend their territory mercilessly. They mate by puffing out their chests and making wild displays. Hummingbirds know what they want and what is theirs and they fight for it.
Though hygiene may not be as much of a life or death issue for humans, it is still important. By maintaining healthy habits, you ensure that you stay healthy. When you’re healthy you’re usually happier. You also look better, which is an automatic confidence booster. It is important to exude confidence (but perhaps not to the hummingbird level of cockiness), and protect what is important to you.
Hummingbirds know where they’ve gotten food in the past, how long it takes flowers to refill and who is responsible for filling hummingbird feeders They are not only observant, but they keep that information for future use.
Intentionally committing useful information to memory can save a lot of time in our daily lives. As someone who gets lost regularly, I’ve been surprised how much of my “directionally challenged-ness” can be solved by paying attention to landmarks, directions, and using a map. This encourages me to remember how to get somewhere rather than just following directions by rote, which usually results in me getting lost the next time I try to find a place.
Fight for What Matters
As mentioned previously, hummingbirds are very territorial. They don’t allow themselves to be taken advantage of. Hummingbirds are very friendly, unless threatened. Likewise, be agreeable, but not a doormat. Stand up for your rights and your possessions. This assertiveness will earn you respect and a sense of security.
Make the most of your sleep
Hummingbirds are smart even with they sleep. They are able to reduce their metabolic rate and enter a deep sleep. In this state, they burn very little energy and can keep their body temperature at a near-hypothermic state. This allows them to save energy for the days, as well as survive in low temperatures.
It is important to maximize your sleep. It is proven that different people get maximum from sleep at different types. Most people benefit more from hours of sleep before midnight, though some people’s cycles are different. It is also important to prepare for sleep efficiently, by allowing yourself to wind down and minimize electronic contact before bed. It is also important to eliminate as many lights and sounds from your bedroom. This allows you to get the most benefit from your sleep and conserve energy for the next day.

Hummingbirds are known to be smart and beautiful creatures. They are respected by their fellow creatures and by humans. By taking their example, you can do a lot to improve your life. Are there other animals that you feel like you can learn from in daily life?

Submitted by Ernie Allison. Ernie loves nature and more specifically, he loves birds and wants to teach others how to appreciate them, too. In the winter, Ernie participates in several citizen science projects, mostly focusing on hummingbird migration patterns.

Birthday Adventure of a Perpetual Wanderer

i Sep 20th No Comments by

Having been in the area just short of four years, I have spent much of my spare time exploring what North Carolina and Southern Virginia have to offer.  This year, for my birthday weekend (the big 3-5), I decided to venture a little farther North to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.  This choice resulted in one of the best trips of the year and in finding one of my new favorite places!  A fellow member of my hiking group accompanied me on this trip to unchartered territory, but we were well researched; armed with countless trail maps and trip reviews from the internet, and a very full agenda!  Our home for the long weekend was Big Meadows, right off of Skyline Drive.

Unbeknownst to me, Skyline Drive is a continuation of the Blue Ridge Parkway and is every bit as beautiful.  While there seem to be less sweeping views of the mountain ranges, there are still a lot of overlooks where you can pull off.  Despite the fact that it was late August, the wildflowers were still plentiful as well.

Perhaps due to the heavier canopy, I saw far more wildlife in three passes on Skyline than I ever have on the BRP.  We certainly learned quickly why the maximum posted speed is 35mph.  Aside from the twisting and turning of the road itself (which is in great shape with fabulous rock walls lining much of the drive), seemingly suicidal deer are plentiful.  These four-legged friends are quite tame, likely due to exposure to tourists like ourselves, and did not spook easily.  This was sad to us, but great for photo ops and entertainment at the campground.

While the deer were our most frequent sightings (and hazards) along the drive, particularly in the fog and at dusk, Skyline Drive was also the setting for my very first black bear sighting as well as an encounter with some unruly turkeys.

I did note that we did hit the area trails, right?  The hiking within Shenandoah National Park did not disappoint either!  On Friday, we hiked the White Oak Canyon/Cedar Run circuit which was a strenuous 8 miles or so with significant elevation gain, but very much worth the effort.  There are over six waterfalls along the trail, but unfortunately the water flow was fairly minimal.  Within our first couple of miles, we encountered a rare, midday bat sighting.  While the orange substance on/around the ears didn’t resemble and photos I had seen of white-nose syndrome, we were not sure if the little guy was sick or not, so we were sure to keep our distance.  We also found what I later researched and believe to be a white-spotted slimy salamander.  This little guy was actually a pretty good size, I would guess about 5 inches long.  This hike also provided us with the opportunity to be startled several times!  In waiting for my counterpart near a large rock outcropping, I almost wandered dangerously close (for my comfort anyway!) to a fairly good sized copperhead before spotting it.  Luckily, it seemed quite comfortable and didn’t react poorly to my presence or proximity.  A short while down the trail, we also had to zip past a ground hive of bees of some sort.  They seemed content in going about their business as well and left us alone, as we did them.  This had turned out to be quite the adventure and it was only day 1!

-Justine Homiak, Wake Audubon Board Member

Creature Feature: Fowler’s Toad (Bufo [Anaxyrus] fowleri)

i May 15th 1 Comment by

Creature Feature

Fowler’s Toad (Bufo [Anaxyrus] fowleri)

by Jeff Beane

Childhood is a toad in the garden, a happy toad.

–William Carlos Williams

For naturalists in the North Carolina Piedmont, April is a pretty fine month.  Spring is in full swing, filled with the sights and sounds of many things happening at once.  If you live near almost any sort of pond or wetland, a harsh, nasal “waaaaah!” will be just one of the sounds you can welcome at this time each year.  It means another breeding season is beginning for Fowler’s Toad (Bufo [Anaxyrus] fowleri).

The word “toad” has no precise scientific definition—it’s a general term used for anurans that tend to have chunky bodies and dry, warty skins; that hop rather than leap; and that are encountered more often on land than around water.  There are actually many families of anurans (Anura, literally meaning “tailless,” is the amphibian order that includes all frogs and toads), and many of them contain members commonly called toads.  The toads that most folks are most familiar with belong to the large family Bufonidae—the “true toads.”  Fowler’s toad is the most widespread, and perhaps the most frequently encountered, of North Carolina’s four bufonids.  It ranges throughout the Piedmont, much of the northern and inner Coastal Plain, and lower elevations in the Mountains.  The American Toad (B. [A.] americanus), is more common in the Mountains, but also ranges throughout most of the Piedmont and the northern Coastal Plain.  The Southern Toad (B. [A.] terrestris) occurs throughout most of the Coastal Plain.  The tiny Oak Toad (B. [A.] quercicus) is also a resident of the Coastal Plain, where it has undergone sharp declines in recent years.

Recent genetic work on bufonids has prompted some systematists to “split” the once-huge genus Bufo into several genera, and North Carolina’s four species have been recently assigned to the genus Anaxyrus.  But taxonomy is a controversial science, with much subjectivity involved, and published changes are not always immediately or unanimously accepted.  It will be a long time before some of us old-timers stop using names we’ve known our entire lives.  As my friend Dave Stephan put it:  “I will stop using the names Rana [a common frog genus] and Bufo when they are pried from my cold, dead hands.”

Bufo is Latin for “toad.”  Anaxyrus is from the Greek ????, meaning “sovereign” or “king.”  The species name honors Samuel Page Fowler (1799-1844), New Jersey statesman, member of U.S. House of Representatives, and mineralogist (the mineral Fowlerite is also named for him).  Fowler’s toad was until fairly recently regarded as a subspecies of the Woodhouse Toad, B. [A.] woodhousii.  The two are now recognized as separate species.

Fowler’s Toad is easily and often confused with the American Toad and Southern Toad—the three are similar in appearance and occasionally hybridize where their ranges overlap.  Usually no more than two of the three occur together in any one locality.  Around the greater Raleigh area, we have Fowler’s and American toads, with Fowler’s being slightly more common (see chart below for ways to distinguish these two).  Southern toads may enter extreme southern Wake County.

Toads are strictly carnivorous, and will feed on almost anything small enough to catch and swallow.  Prey items must be swallowed whole; toads are not capable of chewing or biting off chunks.  Small prey are snapped up with a quick flick of the toad’s sticky tongue.  A toad may use its forelimbs to help shove larger items down its throat.  The great majority of the diet is insects, but toads will also eat other arthropods, worms, and small vertebrates; the only things they don’t manage to get down are those packing a very powerful wallop via stings, bites, or harsh chemical defenses—and even some of these may elicit repeated attempts at being swallowed before the toad gives up.  They have strong stomachs and manage to eat some fairly noxious prey items.  Virtually all farmers and gardeners know of toads’ well-deserved reputations as insect control agents and welcome them in yard, field, and garden.  Toads may be active day and night, but are more often nocturnal, especially in hot weather.  They may gather at outdoor lights at night to eat the insects that accumulate there.  Such “porch light toads” often become tame, and many a child has made a game of tossing insects to a backyard toad.  Toads detect prey visually, by motion, and will attempt to feed on virtually any small moving object.  A toad surrounded by fresh dead insects would starve—they are not noted for their intellect.

Toads and other amphibians absorb water through their porous skin; they do not “drink” in the same fashion as do most mammals, birds, and reptiles.  A Fowler’s Toad’s skin is thicker and drier than that of many amphibians, allowing it to live its entire adult life on land.  Toads must remain at least somewhat cool and moist, however, and will seek underground refugia in hot or dry weather.  They also spend the colder months belowground.  A toad breathes mostly through its lungs, but some oxygen exchange also takes place through its skin.

Like a great many amphibians, toads produce skin secretions that make them unpalatable or even toxic to many predators.  Nonetheless, they are eaten by many animals whose stomachs can neutralize the toxins.  The Eastern Hognose Snake specializes on toads, eating very little else, and some other snakes, including garter snakes and Red-bellied Water Snakes, can eat toads with impunity.  Snapping Turtles also eat them.  Raccoons, skunks, crows, and some other predators may eviscerate toads, eating only the nutritious liver and other internal organs and leaving most of the carcass.  Newly transformed toads, besides being smaller, have milder toxins; they have many more predators than do adults.  Birds such as grackles and jays have been observed eating large numbers of toad metamorphs.  The biggest threats by far, however, are humans with their vehicles, mowers, domestic animals, and pesticides.  But even the killing of huge numbers of individual toads by these factors pales in comparison to outright loss and fragmentation of habitat.  Still, the adaptable Fowler’s Toad manages to survive in some suburban and semi-urban areas, as long as there is a place to breed and some terrestrial habitat.  Its adaptability has allowed it to remain common in the face of serious declines among other amphibian species.

Like all of North Carolina’s anurans, Fowler’s toads must breed in water.  They utilize a great variety of wetlands for breeding, from puddles to lakes and rivers.  They readily use permanent water, and the construction of farm ponds, reservoirs, and other artificial bodies of water has probably greatly benefited them.  Their tadpoles, unlike those of many amphibians, are tolerant of fish; they avoid them by staying mostly in very shallow water, by hiding in vegetation or bottom litter, and by being bad-tasting.

In the Raleigh area, Fowler’s Toads usually begin calling around the first week of April, but that varies with temperature, water levels, and location.  The breeding season is prolonged, often lasting until July or August.  Males call to attract females and to maintain territories (females are silent).  They may sit in shallow water or on land when calling.  Sound is produced by inflating the vocal sac and forcing air across its thin membrane.  Different frog and toad species have different types and shapes of vocal sacs.  A Fowler’s Toad has a single, spherical one that inflates like a balloon under his throat.  The call has been compared to the bleat of a sheep.  When a female approaches, a male grabs her and clasps her tightly just behind the armpits with his forelimbs.  This position is called amplexus.  He will hold onto her until she releases her eggs and will dump sperm on the eggs as they are laid.  Enthusiastic males may try to mate with other males, or with other amplexed pairs.  In extreme situations, males may form mating balls with a female or two somewhere in the middle; on rare occasion females, or even males, may be overwhelmed and drowned.  Males emit a chirping “release call” when clasped by another male.  The particular frequency of this call usually causes a male to realize his mistake and release his would-be mate.  Male toads will also utter this release call when handled, and this is a useful method of distinguishing the sexes; another is that males have dark throats while those of females are plain white.  Females also attain slightly larger sizes than males.

Fowler’s Toads deposit their eggs in long strings.  Two strings are produced simultaneously—one from each ovary—totaling around 7,000 eggs.  They are randomly strung in vegetation or on the shallow pond bottom.  The eggs hatch in about a week and the small, black tadpoles grow quickly, feeding mostly on algae and other organic material, which they scrape from the substrate with the keratinized rows of teeth lining their small mouths.  They transform in about one to two months at small sizes—newly transformed toads are only about 0.3-0.4” (8-11 mm) long.  They can be found leaving ponds in huge numbers.  They may disperse far from the wetlands, and will immediately begin eating insects and growing rapidly. Some may reach sexual maturity in as little as a year, while others require two or three years.  They will live the rest of their lives on land, except for returning to ponds or wetlands annually to breed.  Only a tiny percentage of the thousands of eggs laid by a female toad will end up as breeding adults.

For defense, toads rely on cryptic behavior (hiding, camouflage), on flight (hopping quickly away toward cover); and on their skin toxins.  Rough handling can result in a toad exuding its milky-white toxins—called bufotoxins.  These are produced in various places in the toad’s glandular skin, but especially in the two large, oval glands located on each side of the head—the parotoid glands.  Bufotoxins may have hallucinogenic properties in small quantities.  Some species of toads—most often the Sonoran Desert Toad (Bufo [Incilius] alvarius) and the Marine Toad, or Cane Toad (B. marinus [Rhinella marina])—are actually abused as a drug; live toads are licked, or their skins are dried and eaten or smoked.  Some Native American tribes are known to have dried toad skins and smoked them ceremonially.  Such activities can, of course, potentially result in severe vomiting, brain damage, or death.  North Carolina’s toads have relatively mild toxins and are more likely to induce instant vomiting in a human than either hallucinations or death.  They are harmless to human skin, but can cause severe irritation if rubbed in the eyes or other mucous membranes.  In other words, toads may be safely handled, but don’t eat or lick them, or rub your face or any other sensitive part of your body with them.  Needless to say, they do not cause warts.

A frightened toad will also inflate its body with air to make it larger and harder to swallow, and will release excess water (this is not urine, as is commonly believed) from its cloaca.  Toads may also feign death when handled.  This might seem like self-defeating behavior, but a toad that is swallowed by a snake without a struggle sustains no injuries, and just might survive if the snake happens to regurgitate it later because of its skin toxins or for some reason.

Potential longevity is poorly known for most toad species, but some bufonids have lived for longer than 20 years in captivity.  It seems reasonable that a Fowler’s Toad could live for 10 years or more in the wild if it could escape predators for that long (very few do).

Watch for Fowler’s Toad in your yard or garden this spring, and listen for its harsh-but-friendly voice on spring and summer nights.  As neighbors go, you could certainly do worse.

Fowler’s Toad                                                                                 American Toad

Most dark spots on back will each contain 3 or more warts. Most dark spots on back will each contain 1 or 2 warts.
Cranial crests (bony ridges on top of the head behind each eye) are small and inconspicuous. Parotoid gland (large, oblong gland on each side of the head) is usually flush against cranial crest. Cranial crests are well-developed and conspicuous.  Parotoid gland is usually separate from cranial crest or connected by a short spur.
Smallish warts on outer surface of tibia or shank of hind leg. Enlarged warts on outer surface of tibia or shank of hind leg.
Underside usually plain white with a single dark spot on chest/throat. Chest often mottled with dark pigment; usually no single dark spot.
Smaller; maximum snout-vent length about 3.25” (82 mm). Grows larger; maximum snout-vent length about 4.25” (107 mm).  Largest specimens are from Mountains.
Snout slightly more pointed. Snout slightly more broadly rounded.
Color highly variable, but sometimes greenish. Color highly variable, but usually brown, gray, or reddish; seldom looks greenish.
In Raleigh area, usually calls from early April to August. In Raleigh area, usually calls from late February to April.
Call is a harsh, nasal “waaah,” ca. 1-4 seconds in duration. Call is a long, musical, whistlelike trill, ca. 20-30 seconds in duration.
Breeds in a wide variety of wetlands, but often prefers farm ponds, lakes, or other permanent water. May use permanent water, but prefers woodland pools or other temporary wetlands.
Tends to have slightly lower, more horizontal posture and slightly smaller forelimbs. Tends to sit more upright; forelimbs slightly larger.
Usually a distinct whitish mid-dorsal stripe. Mid-dorsal stripe often present, but not always distinct; sometimes faint or absent.