Saturday, September 20, 2008

Coffee with Crush

I am in Colorado and my neighbor is caring for my dogs, Buddy and Holly, my cat, Niblet, my turtle, Crush, and the many frogs and toads that hop around the house. Knowing she is a great dog lover, I knew I would have no problems convincing my neighbor to walk my dogs, but I was surprised to learn that she also sits outside and has her coffee with Crush. I have shared more than one cup of tea with my aquatic friend and must admit that I love him deeply. He brings me peace, a peace that comes, remarkably, from simply being near him.

There's something very soothing about a turtle. I do not see them as "slow," I see them more as patient, calm explorers. When I watch Crush stretch his neck from his shell and carefully turn from side to side, I can feel my own thoughts calming, slowing down, pausing. Sometimes when I toss his carrots and lettuce and other scraps into the pond, I sit and watch him eat, knowing he is also watching me. He likes to rest with the belly of his shell on hot rocks and when he does so, he stretches out his front and back legs as if he's sunbathing, all the while looking around, soaking it all in.

The dogs and cat don't bother Crush and I think that's because of his size. He looks exactly like a Red-Eared Slider, but he doesn't have the red marks on his head. He is medium size--I've seen some jumbo ones in the local parks--but I think he will grow much larger now that he is in a more natural environment. In spite of his good size, I do worry about some of the predators in the area. Crush is curious and friendly. He shares his waters generously. I had him in a pond with some large Koi for a short period of time and they were all very happy together. He is also friendly with the squirrel couple who often play beneath his tree and drink from his pond. He will swim close, but not too close, and just hover, saying howdy in his way.

Crush likes to be hand-fed, and I don't mean simply tossing his food into the pond. He likes to have people put a piece of food between their fingertips so he can nip it down. He has never once tried to bite me, and he's never nipped my skin when grabbing food. He doesn't completely chomp down. It's more like a gentle grasping with his little snapper. I may have taught him to eat from my fingers, but it's also possible that Crush learned this skill from the school he once called home. I rescued Crush from a small tank in an elementary school classroom. He was having problems with his shell and the teacher was concerned. The problem was quickly corrected when I placed him in a larger tank with proper lighting.

The goal was to take Crush to Texas and release him into the wild, but when I read on the internet that pet shop turtles can spread diseases to wild turtles, I realized Crush would never be a community turtle. I also realized that I had the opportunity to provide him with a happy home of his own, and that's when I started on his pond.

I first built a pond that was two feet deep, about that wide, and four feet long. However, even in the Texas Hill Country the temperatures can drop into the 20s and I knew Crush would need deeper waters where he could snuggle up to fallen leaves in the winter time. So, I built a second pond, four feet deep, round and wide with several steps leading to a fenced walkout. He doesn't spend time on the sandy walkout, though. He prefers to clambor over the rocks and perch on the edge. At first, I was concerned that he would wander away from the pond and planned a second fence to keep him in, but he never walks into the surrounding garden.

My two window frogs join Crush in the pond each night. They all seem to get along very well. I'm not sure if Crush would eat their eggs, but I have a feeling they would lay them in the first pond again when they're ready to do so once more. This all seems very natural to me, that they would be friendly, yet cautious, with the ruler of the pond.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Froggy Trauma!

Now we have a drama! I believe I know why the snake keeps climbing into my window--he wants my window frog! I was walking through the house when I heard my husband shouting. I ran outside and found him struggling with something in the pond. The snake was in the pond and he had the largest of the Southern Leopard frogs foot in his mouth! Steve actually managed to tug on the snake with a stick hard enough while I held the frog and he let go. I was worried the frog might lose a foot, but it would be better than losing his life. The snake is still in the pond, hiding. We grabbed Leo and set her in a bowl of water on the other side of the house. She's still in the bowl, breathing very fast, but she's allowing Steve and I to both check on her, so I think she's calming a little bit.

Snakes and Squirrels

We were supposed to leave for Colorado this morning, but when I woke up and checked the satellite, I realized we were blocked in. We have the remnants of Baja’s tropical storm blocking our way west and north, and of course, the hurricane is coming in from the south and east. Even though my house is on the side of a mountain, when it comes to weather, sometimes it feels as if we are the center of a circle and all the weather moves around us.

It is very windy today and the animals seem busier because of it. There was a black garter snake in my window again this morning. Last time I saw this snake he had climbed into the living room window. I heard him tapping on the glass and thought it was one of the window frogs. I was so suprised to see a snake staring back at me! It wasn’t tapping on the glass this time, it was drinking from the frog dish. It's a very long, black snake with a white striped section on top that has a stripe of orange down the center. And he is so fast!

The squirrels were drinking out of the turtle pond and the little male was doing a careful assessment of the shelter area I built for Crush, the turtle. I would love to have them living right outside my bedroom window, but it would be impossible to keep them safe from the dogs and cat. They are fascinating to watch. Their paws look more like hands and they use them this way, unless they’re climbing down a tree head first. This morning, the back yard was filled with cardinals and blue birds and the squirrels were lying on their bellies on the tree branches, watching. When I was a child I collected ceramic squirrels. My parents often took us camping in the Colorado mountains. Just about every weekend, in fact. And whenever we stopped at a little gift shop, they bought me a squirrel.

Squirrels can get over-friendly at times, though. We had a pair that made their home in our backyard in Colorado once. The male was so friendly he would try to take the peanuts from my fingers, so I started wearing gloves when I set them on the tree branches. After awhile, they started burying the peanuts throughout my garden—and digging up the plants to do so. They also dug up all of my flower bulbs and ate them. They also tore all the bark off the trees. I don’t think we’ll have the same problems in Texas. There are plenty of trees, it rarely gets uncomfortably cold, and there seems to be a never-ending supply of food for the little creatures.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Toe Toads

We are preparing for Hurricane Ike to hit the Texas coastline. We are expecting strong winds and heavy rainfall over the next few days. I was cleaning up the patio when I noticed I left my gardening shoes outside. I picked them up and prepared to throw them into the garage, then it occurred to me that a spider might have crawled inside. I looked in the shoe, but instead of seeing a spider, I saw a toad! I checked the other shoe and there was another toad inside! One for each shoe, tucked up inside the toe section. Toe toads. Toads represent luck and prosperity. I think I'll go buy a lottery ticket.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Feeling a bit froggy...

My day is starting out to be a bit froggy. I watered the front gardens and freshened the water in both frog bowls on the window sills. Leo was in the guest bedroom window staring up at me. Sara was staring at the pond, as always, ready to take a flying leap if I move too quickly. They are both so calm, patient, and serious, like guards standing before Buckingham Palace. The sun was shining on their perches highlighting the sparks of gold on their eyelids and bodies. They both have a bright white throat, which surprised me. At first, I thought Leo was the female and I was certain Sara was a male because of the size difference—Leo is much larger and female frogs and toads are larger than the males. However, the ear flaps on Sara and Leo are both the size of their eyes, which is common in females, and they both have a bright, white throat, and males generally have a darker throat. So I have named the smaller frog Sara and am assuming she is much younger than Leo (which is short for Leonora.)

When I finished with the frogs I started watering the rosemary gardens and two more toads popped out as I sprayed beneath a scented geranium. I haven’t seen these toads before. One was gray and quite large. The other was brown with a hint of green and was much smaller. Apparently, I had sprayed into their hole, though I didn’t notice until they popped out. I must have given them a face full of water!

Last weekend, as I stood watering the rosemary, I suddenly heard the sound of many birds, large birds, calling back and forth to each other. There is a flock of vultures that circles my house every day. They are generally playing when they circle. They like to catch the warm air currents and ride them higher. I noticed the shadows of the birds as they flew across my driveway and realized they were the source of the sound. I moved out into the open so I could see above the house. A group of hawks had joined the vultures. I didn't even know hawks flew in groups! The two groups of birds were flying together, swooping and diving and calling to each other. No one was fighting, and they weren't circling playfully like the vultures generally do. I put up my hands and called out to them. One of the vultures came down and tried to land on the house roof, but couldn't get the traction. Then he tried to land on the garage roof, but had the same problem. Finally, he looked like he was going to land in the driveway, but when he got that close, and I realized how incredibly huge he was, I chickened out and ran inside! It was cool, but wow! Those birds are huge!! Their wingspan can get to be five to six feet!

There’s a red-tailed lizard on the driveway as I write this. I can see him from my den. He sweeps across the driveway every afternoon, searching for bugs. It’s his routine. He’s on super-awareness mode all the time with his little head swinging back and forth, searching and searching.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Acting Squirrely

I have two little squirrels who like the tree in my back yard--one of the many ancient Texas Live Oaks that grace our property, spreading their long, gangly branches like crooked fingers over my back gardens. The squirrels live in the forest behind us, but all of the tree branches seem to touch somehow around my house forming giant jungle gyms for the squirrels. I have a corn cob feeder in the fork of the tree and one of the squirrels spends a great deal of time there, nibbling. He's a young fella with a long, fat tail and a warm, relaxed gaze.

And he's a bit spoiled.

He take the corn in his paws and nibbles on the kernel. The remainder looks like a yellow tooth. He tosses that on the ground. He's a picky eater. I have left him slices of apple on occassion. He nibbles out the insides and tosses the peel on the ground. It's not really a problem because we have a pair of blue birds that sits beneath the tree and cleans up the mess. Sometimes the two squirrels and the blue birds chase each other around, chattering back and forth.

What I love most about this little squirrel, though, is how he spends his afternoons. He knows that my chocolate labs are mountain dogs at heart and that they spend their afternoons with their fannies parked in front of the air conditioner. The squirrel takes advantage of this time for some private nurturing. He will stretch his belly out on a tree branch and snooze. Sometimes he digs and digs at the base of the tree then stretches his belly across the cool dirt, but he always keeps his eyes just a little bit open. I have stood beneath the tree and warned him that the vegetarian status of my dogs is questionable at best, but every afternoon he's nibbling and tossing and snoozing in that tree again. So, I guess we'll all have to learn to accomodate. Even when the weather cools, the dogs are not allowed in the back yard in the afternoon. It's not too difficult to ask. He's only out there a few hours. Everyone needs some private time.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

wiggly, black things

I have a large bowl filled with water that I inserted into the ground for the dragonflies. There are dragonflies the size of small horses here in Texas and they come in every color imaginable and we have a good-sized herd of them around our house. I noticed that the bowl of water had some mosquito babies in it, but I also noticed something darker, so I looked it up on the internet. The darker creatures resemble tiny tadpoles, but the swirl around and fall to the bottom like mosquitos when you touch the water. These smaller, darker creatures are dragonfly babies. I found this information on

This site also has pictures of the mysterious spiders that ate the frog and toad tadpoles. These are called nymphs, and they are similar to tadpoles, but they are dragonflies. They climb out of the pond when they are ready to hatch and the dragonfly climbs out of the spider-like body. Larger species of dragonflies have nymphs that eat tadpoles, so these must have been of a larger species. They generally stay in the pond for a year as they grow and would have most likely eaten the next batch of tadpoles, as well as each other. Dragonflies are so important, though, because they also eat mosquitos and flies.

There was a large, black dragonfly on the back porch yesterday with white stripes on its wings. I believe it was a Common Skimmer. It was circling around me as I tried to work, buzzing me on occassion as it drew closer and closer. I finally held very still, waiting to see if it would land on my head, and it appeared to be preparing to do so, but the phone rang so I ran inside. Dragonflies do bite, and the bigger the dragonfly, the bigger the bite. They can be aggressive with each other, particularly during mating, and they are aggressive with other dragonflies, often attacking and eating smaller dragonflies, but they are not particularly aggressive toward humans. Generally, they bite only if they feel threatened and cannot even break the skin.

I have learned that some varieties of dragonflies are endangered species. I now have a turtle pond and a frog pond. It looks like we'll be building a dragonfly pond, as well since the spring-fed creek on our property has dried up due to the drought. I will leave the wiggly black things in the reflecting bowl and give them a chance to survive until I can build them a pond of their own.

Toads revisited

As soon as I posted the last blog, I went outside to work in my garden. I was planting flowers in a round, clay pot. I stuck my finger into the dirt to make room for the flower's roots and felt something hard beneath my fingertip. I tried to pry the rock out with my finger...and the rock moved! It was the toad! No wonder the little toad keeps appearing at my back door--she's made a home in one of my flower pots! I planted the flowers in a moon shape around the edges of the pot--because of their connections with water and darkness, toads are often associated with the moon in folklore--leaving a large space for her to come and go. I didn't plant any in the middle where she is hiding. I left the pot on the planting table--that's where it was when she climbed inside. Perhaps it provides more safety for her.

The Toad's Tale

It was four in the morning and I just could not fall back to sleep. I decided to let the dogs out since they were each hopping up and down on one leg. I turned on the patio lights and tried to push the door open, but there was a large toad staring through the glass. I stuck my hand out and tried to shoo her away, but she wouldn’t budge. My dogs, Buddy and Holly, pushed their way past. I thought they were going to harm the toad so I started to grab them, but they simply sniffed at the little creature then went on their way. I followed the dogs through the yard, thinking that the toad would be gone by the time we returned, but she was still at the door. I gently urged her out of the way and slid the door open. Again, the dogs sniffed, but walked past, uninterested. (For the past three years, since the time they were pups, I’ve been trying to convince this obsessively carnivorous brother and sister pair that they are vegetarians. I suspect that they remain unconvinced, but the quick sniffs at the toad have led me to believe they are at least considering a change in diet.) I was relieved that the dogs were uninterested, but not just for the toad. A toad’s skin is toxic and can make some animals very sick.

With the dogs inside, I was able to sneak back out through the garage door. I squatted down to speak with the toad. I explained to her that I could not let her inside, even if the dogs did give her the sniff of approval. She raised herself on her front legs and arched her back. Her back looked rough and hard, like pebbles at the bottom of a stream bed. Toads often have leathery skin for better water retention, and their skin has a brown tint. This toad looks like a dried leaf. She has a white stripe down her back and when she lies flat, the stripe looks like the leaf stem. Of course, as she’s growing, she’ll shed her skin every couple of weeks.

I know it’s a “she” because her throat is white and the males have dark throats. She may not survive more than a year as the life span of toads is fairly low, but I try hard to maintain a healthy amphibian habitat with two ponds and plenty of bugs! The University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity website states that some toads have lived as long as ten years in the wild, and that there was a captive toad that lived to the age of 36!

I sat down on the cement and stared back at her in the dark. The owl called loudly from a nearby tree and the flashlight caught the red eyes of a rabbit near the back fence, but the toad didn’t budge. I grew sleepier and sleepier watching her and finally walked back inside and returned to my bed. Before I left, I flipped on the outside light to attract more toad kibbles.

I have read that toads are attracted to sound, but to the best of my knowledge, there wasn’t any male toads calling from my den. The television and lights were all off. I think, perhaps, this toad simply wants to chat, which is fine with me, or perhaps she has other motives. Toads appear in the folklore of many diverse cultures representing life, death, money, or luck. I’m planning to win the lottery next week, so I’m sure this toad has only the best of intentions.

I think I’ve seen this toad before, and on more than one occasion. When I first moved here last winter, I immediately started planting my herb garden. I was digging in the side yard and when I lifted the shovel, there was a toad on the tip. At first I thought she was injured, but my neighbor assured me I had simply scared the poop out of her! I gently replaced her in the ground, covered her back up, and checked on her later. When I moved the sand aside, she popped out and hopped away. I am certain she was fine.

A few weeks later, I was digging in the back yard when I noticed a tiny, brown nose sticking out of the ground. Could this be the same toad, I wondered? I ran to the other garden to check. Of course, the toad wasn’t there. They must bury themselves to keep warm or cool, as the case may be. At any rate, I continued to spot the toad in various places, always very close to my home.

And, as you’ll recall, the night before the long strings of toad eggs appeared in my pond, there was a toad at my front door…

Friday, September 5, 2008

Leo the Leopard Frog

I first met Leo on a stormy morning in June. I awoke to the low rumble of thunder and quickly made my way to the living room and the wall-length picture window that overlooks the town. I saw a flash of light in the distance. Within minutes, a soft, soothing rain was falling and I sighed deeply. Thirty days without rain and 105 degrees. Even the lizards were choking on the dust.

As soon as it was light I carried my houseplants into the mist outside. I could hear a cardinal singing in the oak tree that canopies over the back gardens. I set the pot on the ground and glanced at a nearby rock, making eye contact with a rather somber-looking Southern Leopard Frog. He was tan with chocolate brown patches and a pointed snout. I gave him his space, but he didn’t seem particularly threatened by my presence.

I didn’t see him for a few days. I went about my usual routine, hand watering the containers, setting up the soaker hoses. I have a container of morning glories that wind up a vine. I used a watering can to give the plants a drink. I noticed a dried leaf beneath the leaves of the vine and thought of moving it, then was distracted. The next day, I again noticed the leaf beneath the vine. On the third day, I gently moved the vine aside. The dried leaf was actually a spotted frog. He was enjoying the daily shower.

I left for Colorado for a month, and when I returned, I did my usual cleaning of the ponds. I dug two small ponds in front of the house, positioning them carefully so they could be seen from each bedroom as well as the living room, which has three large picture windows. When I’d finished with the guest bedroom pond, I ran into the room to check the view from the window. It is a quiet, rectangular pond surrounded by rocks and miniature plants. It is beneath a spreading tree and for months now, deep pink rose-like flowers have been tumbling into the water where they form a floating scarlet blanket. I was turning from the window when something in the corner caught my eye. I bent over, looked closer. It was the frog! He was sitting in my window!

The following morning I rushed from the bed to check on the frog. Sure enough, he was still in the window. I started watching him throughout the day. I noticed that he generally leapt into the pond at sunset, but really did seem to enjoy simply sitting on the window sill all day long. I found a wide plastic lid and filled it with water. I slid it onto the sill at night when he’d left for his evening bug feast. The next morning he was sitting in the plastic lid.

I finally identified the little fella as a Southern Leopard Frog. I called him Leo. A few days later, a similar, but smaller frog appeared in my bedroom window. I call her Sara and she has her own little plastic lid filled with water. Sara spends her evenings in the turtle pond, catching bugs while Crush, the turtle, sleeps.

One night I was awakened by Leo croaking loudly at my bedroom door. I flipped on the outside light and slide the door wide. The frog sat very still. I walked out onto the patio and knelt beside him. I touched him. Still, he didn’t move. Then the cat joined us and Leo took a flying leap. As I climbed back into bed, I wondered why he would suddenly appear at my door. I decided his pond must need cleaning. The next morning, when I prepared to clean the pond, I found a nest of frog eggs floating on the bottom.

That night, when I was getting ready for bed, my husband rushed excitedly into the room. “There’s a toad at the front door,” he said. “This is so funny. You can hear him, he’s so loud!” I ran into the room with him and peeked out the front window. Sure enough, there was a toad on the front porch, facing the front door, croaking loudly. I was not surprised to find a string of toad eggs in the frog pond the next morning.

The frog eggs hatched first and the pond filled with dozens of tiny, black dots. I thought this was a good sign because the frogs would be older than the toads, and the toads were supposedly more aggressive. A few days later the toad eggs hatched. The pond was filled with black dots. They munched on the algae on the rocks. They munched on the lettuce I tossed into the water. Soon, the frogs were joined by strange bugs that walked along the bottom of the pond. The strange bugs munched on the tadpoles. Within days, there was nothing left but strange, spider-liked bugs. I drained the pond and let it dry. I will watch for more eggs and this time, raise a few in buckets and release them when they’re big enough to defend themselves.