OPINION

Naturally Speaking Seldom Seen Yard Critters

Steve Lekwa

It’s been a wet summer. An additional 1.5 inches fell gently last night in spite of being under a tornado watch. That comes on top of more than nine inches measured at my yard in the past two weeks, and again left water ponded in low spots. I have measured five rain events of more than three inches this summer. Three of those were more than four inches, and two were more than five inches. Although there’s been significant field flooding, we’ve been lucky that the heavy rains were spaced far enough apart and didn’t fall as heavily in areas immediately upstream from us where they would have caused our streams to flood.

A good deal of surface runoff channels through a vacant lot I own just west of my house. I planted a wetland garden there featuring moist soil plants like marsh milkweed, Canada anemone, great blue lobelia, sneeze weed and sedges. It adds splashes of color all summer long in an area where it is difficult to grow or mow normal turf grass. Its taller vegetation is also a haven for small birds later in the fall and winter. This year, it’s been wet enough to also become a haven for a variety of amphibians.

A toad or two usually hang around the yard and gardens and I regularly encounter (or hear) small gray tree frogs. Earlier this summer, for the first time I can remember, I found dozens of tiny baby toads in the area around my wetland garden. Toads spend only a short time as tadpoles and there was obviously enough water under the growing wetland flowers to satisfy that need this year. I often stopped the mower and transferred as many as I could to safe places like my garden plots. Some of those babies have survived and grown quite a bit. I was pleased to see that several young toads had taken up residence in the garden while picking green beans.

I began noticing many inch-long baby tree frogs in early August, and more recently stopped the mower numerous times to rescue baby cricket frogs. Tree frogs are great climbers with the little suction pads on their toes, but they don’t move fast enough to avoid a lawn mower. Although the little frogs were bright emerald green, they’re known as gray tree frogs. They have some ability to change color to match their environment, and adults are usually mottled gray when not in breeding season. The baby cricket frogs were even smaller and were mottled tan and brown. Cricket frogs favor grassy areas near wetlands and streams. Although classified as tree frogs, they don’t climb, and tend to stay closer to water. I might not have seen them at all down in the grass, but cricket frogs are champion jumpers that are said to be able to jump as much as 40 times their body length. Even as tiny as they were, they were fast and difficult to catch.

Every one of my little yard amphibians is feasting on bugs like mosquitoes. I’d rather not have slugs in my garden, and toads add slugs to their menu. The toads and gray tree frogs will hibernate on dry land buried in leaves and loose soil. They return to the water only to breed. Although cricket frogs are strong swimmers and stay near water, they hibernate on dry land, too. Other frogs, like leopard frogs and bull frogs, hibernate buried in mud on the bottom of ponds. This wet year has altered my yard habitat enough to allow for more amphibian neighbors than in most years. I’m glad to have them as long as they’re here!

Steve Lekwa is retired director of Story County Conservation. He lives in Nevada.