Monday, April 2, 2012

When You See Your Chance Take It

I stood on the bank of the Big Elk and listened to the high trill. First one call to my right then an answer to my left. A third calls from across the stream. It feels early for American toads to be calling for mates, but here they were, trilling away. I scared one couple, in amplexus, into the water. Amplexus is how toads mate. The smaller male tightly grasps onto the top of the larger female, and won’t let go until she deposits her fertilized eggs.

American toads are an urban success story. They have figured out how to not only tolerate but actually prosper in the most densely populated areas, even though we aren’t sure how. I wanted to capture images of the toads in amplexus because it is such a sign of hope and an incredible story of amazing nature accessible to everyone. I figured the toads would still be here trilling and in amplexus in two days, when I had a little more time.

I return as planned and now, 2 days later, the toads are done, their eggs are laid. I should have gotten in the water with the toads when I had the chance. Things change fast in a stream. But still I suited up to explore what is a very impacted creek.

The Big Elk is a heavily urbanized stream. The bottom is completely embedded in deposited silt so that it is now one continuous sand flat, with no cobble, and therefore, little habitat. Over fertilized water results in long stringy mustardy tan algae that covers everything.

I slide into the water, disappointed that I missed the toads, and think that this is a waste. The stream is featureless except for a half submerged tree trunk, and a tire filled with sand. It’s like swimming over a lunar landscape. Barren. But then, life. A white sucker swims for a deeper hole and gets used to my presence so that I can watch this fish without it darting for cover. Tessellated darters send up fine puffs of sediment as they shoot away. A small school of small sunnies hold under the sunken tree. I turn to see if anything is trailing me and see a large school of common shiners. I have stirred a lot of the string algae off the bottom into a flocculent cloud, and the shiners feed in it. I get a faceful of the olive chunky haze as I turn upstream and really hope I didn’t get any into my snorkel. I try not to gag, thinking about the possibility.

I continue to crawl upstream over the plain sand bottom. Then I see lines of black dots. I may have missed the opportunity to capture toads mating, but I can capture images of the next toad generation. There is nothing more hopeful in ecology than reproducing populations, and I feel grateful to be able to witness the process. This part of the elk is impacted, maybe even perceived to be disgusting at times. But still there is amazing life.

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