Painted Turtles basking
There’s something to be said for go-big-or-go-home herping trips to exotic locations. Red-eye flights, long drives in the car with your friends to places where everything is new and exotic, scribbling furious notes on what-when-where as you try to absorb it all, try to take it all in and make sense of what is happening. On the other hand, quick and simple day trips close to home often hold their own pleasures, and offer the chance for some introspection and examination in closer detail.
Early in April, favorable weather and a day off coincided, and I headed out to look for Clonophis kirtlandi, always a hit-or-miss proposition here in Illinois. On this day, the Kirtland’s Snakes were missing, but other herps took away some of the disappointment – Cricket Frogs were calling from the ditches and ponds, Sliders and Paints were basking on logs, and the first Storeria dekayi of the year flattened its small form and rattled its tiny tail at me, in an attempt to look large and menacing. I snapped its picture and let it wriggle off the trail and into the tall grass.
I was thinking of heading for home when sounds from an adjacent field caught my ear. I could hear American Toads trilling above the sough of the wind in the grass. I veered off the trail and headed towards a green smudge of willows, the likely location for water and calling toads. The willows thickly occupied a semi-circular depression in the field, a pond at times but at the moment all I could see was dried, cracked mud and algal mats sporting a lurid green color. There was water here earlier in the spring, enough to charge the algae and get it going for the year. Still, I could plainly hear several toads, so there was water somewhere ahead. I took out my camera and picked-pushed my way in among the willows.
Not surprisingly the trilling stopped when I
reached the water’s edge, before I could catch any glimpse of any calling
toad. I knew it wouldn’t be long before they started up again, so I dropped
to one knee, readied my camera, and tucked my head down to listen and wait.
I thought about other calling toads in other places – along a lake in
Kansas, next to a rocky creek in Indiana, in a roadside ditch in Arizona. It
might have been my cold, wet knee that brought my mind back to my present
location. Drooping sheets of algae looked like green curtains clinging to
the willows - it looked like this pond had perhaps six more inches of water
in it at some point. As the wind blew in gusts through the small trees
around me, I mused about the nature of this pond. It was more or less at the
bottom of the large, sloping field, and something about it made me think it
was made by something, and not necessarily man-made. I wondered if it wasn’t
an old buffalo wallow. Back in the day, bison would use their hooves to dig
shallow depressions, removing the vegetation and then rolling in the mud
(and in the summer, the dirt and dust) to remove insects and apply a
protective coating of mud. The soil in these depressions became hard-packed
over time, and while the wallows held water, the absent plant layer allowed
water to percolate into the ground, helping to charge the water table.
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