By Marjorie Rachlin
One sunny day in early March, I heard what I had been waiting for: a high sweet trill, repeated every few minutes. When I walked over and looked in my neighbor’s goldfish pond, I found several American toads submerged along the edge, big eyes peering nearsightedly out of the water. Two of them were mating, one perched awkwardly on top of the other. In a few days the pond had clumps of 8-inch strings of sticky gelatin, dotted with little black eggs.
Each toad lays 4,000 to 6,000 eggs. My neighbor doesn’t need quite so many toads, so she called a friend who took a bucket of them to her elementary school. It’s fun – and educational – for the children raise them.
It isn’t hard. One spring I raised 15 or so in a dishpan outside the back door. I used rainwater spiked with a bucket of algae-filled water from the goldfish pool, and threw in a few decaying leaves. They ate algae and grew, finally developing back legs, front legs, and an air–breathing apparatus, and losing their tail. Eight weeks after hatching, the first little toad, only three-quarters of an inch long, jumped out of the dishpan and disappeared into the garden. In a couple of years he or she may be 2 inches long and ready to mate.
These ugly little toads are not going to turn into a fairytale prince, but they do good deeds all summer, eating insects, snails, worms and slugs while hanging out under a cool rock or leaf pile.
There are about 10 species of toads and frogs common to Rock Creek Park, and possibly our yards. In April you are most likely to hear spring peepers (a piercing chorus of peeps, one every second) or wood frogs (they quack like a duck). This year the early shift has already laid eggs in little woodland pools in the park, but there’s more to come. Do you have any in your yard? Let me know.
We’ve got fox pups!
Five red fox pups, each about a foot long now, are living with their parents in a backyard near Soapstone Park. They were born around the middle of March, in a den dug under the roots of a fallen tree.
Their mother, the vixen, is nursing them. She allows them out several times a day, but they stay close to the den. They get solid food occasionally – a bird, a chipmunk – but she will nurse the pups until the end of May. Through the summer, the parents will teach them to hunt, so they’ll be ready to fend for themselves when the family breaks up in the fall.
We know of another red fox pair, several blocks away. They mated in January, with an hour of screeching and howling worse than tomcats, but so far no pups have been seen. We are a desirable neighborhood for these foxes. The red fox likes urban life in a woodsy habitat. We have plenty of food – mice, rats, grasshoppers, birds, even garbage – and they often den up under a deck or a porch. Look for them at night – that’s when they hunt.
Sing, Sing, Sing — The Birds
A mockingbird is singing now in front of the Van Ness Giant. All over Forest Hills, we’ve had birdsong since late January. Some birds are singing to attract a mate, others are asserting property rights over a nice patch of shrubs or a tall tree.
Forest Hills is desirable real estate for a year-round resident like the cardinal. On a sunny day,cardinals are singing everywhere. When I made a quick run-around, I heard two from the corner of 36th and Davenport, two at Brandywine and 30th, one at 2900 Upton. I would guess that there is a pair nesting every couple of blocks.
If you are an early riser, you will hear the “dawn chorus,” a burst of bird song when birds first begin to stir, in the hour around dawn. When I woke up recently at 6 a.m., the first bird I heard was a robin, caroling softly. Soon a song sparrow gave voice, other robins, and then a cardinal. In the distance I could hear the sad “coo, coo” of a mourning dove.
As the season wears on, these songs will be joined by those of migrating birds. We are at the edge of the Atlantic coast flyway, and birds flying north drop out of the sky at dawn for food and rest. Rock Creek, near the Nature Center, is a migration spot known to birdwatchers all over the country. Starting the third week in April, I will up on the ridge by 7 a.m., joining the group of local birders waiting for the day’s arrivals. We’re a motley crew, decked out in boots, old jackets and field hats, except for a few poor souls who are dressed to go on to the office.
Some migrants come and stay, like the orioles, but many forage and rest during the daylight hours, then take flight that night, off to New England or Canada. Some birds are early this year because of the weather, but my guess is that peak migration will be the same as usual, the first two weeks in May.
Personally, I’m waiting for my house wren, who always returns between April 15th and 17th. The bird house has been cleaned. I hope he can persuade a nice female to move in.