Q I I always read your column. I haven’t written with a question for some years, but I saw something I’ve never seen before. On June 29, I went for a hike on Mount Everett. I was walking up the road in the area of the lake. I started to see things hopping near my feet. I thought they were insects at first, then I realized they were tiny toads. (Perhaps frogs, but I don’t think so. That’s why I’m writing!
I’ve seen many in the woods over the years, but never like this. I had to concentrate not to step on them. In the space of 100 feet or so of road, there were hundreds, maybe thousands. It was astonishing. I was sorry the road was open to cars because I know many of them must have died from the three cars that I saw.
Do you know what I might have come across? Are they tiny adults, or was this a mass birth event? I feel blessed to have been there at that moment.
— Kevin K., Great Barrington
A: Not often, but I have seen this in some different places, not always near a pond or other body of water, for instance. Your thought, “maybe thousands,” is not an exaggeration. One female American toad may lay several long strings of eggs in a jelly-like substance containing hundreds, but more like thousands, of eggs that the male follows to deposit his sperm and fertilize the eggs. On several occasions, I have seen a female with a male hanging on tightly to her back, ready to do his part in creating new life.
A single female will lay between 4,000 to 8,000 eggs. And indeed, more than one female will be at any given pond at any given time, so that the young that survive to hatch into tadpoles are numerous. And after roughly four to six weeks, they are ready to leave the pond for a life of terrestrial life until they become adults and are called to repeat what their parents had done some years earlier. That is the point at which Kevin encountered this phenomenon.
Similar to caterpillars change dramatically from egg to caterpillar to a butterfly or moth, the toad and frog change (metamorphosis) from an egg to tadpole to adult toad or frog (although small in the beginning). Late June through mid-July is the season to encounter this excitement.
These toads should be awarded the wart prize of New England amphibians. Their warts and the large glands on their shoulders are not just for looks; those glands on the shoulders contain toxic secretions that give dogs a second thought of playing with one, spitting it out and frothing following the encounter. Garter snakes, some ducks, and skunks, and possibly raccoons somehow prey on them. If this does not deter some predators, the toad confronted with possible death will inflate its body, making it difficult to swallow.
A sad thing is during spring, and early summer nighttime rains, many, many amphibians, including salamanders, frogs and toads, are hit and killed by drivers.
Q: I have not seen a single monarch butterfly thus far this spring or summer. Are there any reports other than the one you mentioned early on in your columns? And please suggest flowers to attract butterflies, including monarchs.
— Alice, Dalton
A: I have not seen any yet, and I have three species of milkweed and a wide variety of enticing flowers. Thus far, only three reports have reached my desk. I was hoping for many more.
As for flowers, try these — not necessarily native, but famous for attracting these attractive insects: Blazing star (Liatris), goldenrods (Solidago), bee balm (Monarda), Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum), orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), sweet pepperbush or Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia).
Also, the late summer flowers are the asters. Especially (Aster novae-angliae), a native.
Q: What birds can I get with grape jelly and oranges? I want to try after reading in this column about several birds I never thought would be a feeder.
— A Pownal, Vt., reader
A: In addition to birds mentioned before, grape jelly is favored by birds such as scarlet tanagers, most woodpeckers, Baltimore or northern orioles, northern mockingbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks. house finches and catbirds. Halved oranges will attract all or most of the same birds.