She Found Her Prince
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Last Saturday evening Rene Clark and I met up at Sabino Canyon and together, we explored the canyon’s riparian area after dark. Rene, who posts under the name “Serpent Princess,” is a fine photographer who specializes in reptiles, amphibians, and insects. It had rained heavily on Saturday afternoon. There were large puddles all over the desert/ Both Rene and I were hopeful that we’d be able to find and photograph mating Couch’s Spadefoot Toads. These animals are extremely difficult to find, especially mating, for reasons that I’ll explain. However, conditions for seeing mating spadefoots were perfect last Saturday night.
We spent a couple of hours thrashing the bushes in total darkness without seeing very much. As we started walking the road back towards the parking area we began spotting toads foraging by the roadside and on the road itself. These were Red-spotted Toads, animals that I’ve photographed and discussed previously. Then, we heard loud bleating noises coming from nearby. It sounded almost as if there were sheep in the canyon. We followed the sounds, leaving the road and very slowly working our way in pitch blackness through some tall grasses and boulders near Sabino Creek. Eventually, we came across a large pool of water caused by the storms’ runoff. And, in that pool we found about eight or ten toads. Some of them were calling and, at close range, their calls were deafening. The toads shut up when we we first appeared and nearly all of them submerged in the pool. Rene and I sat down on rocks at water’s edge and waited in the darkness. After just a couple of minutes the toads resurfaced and they quickly resumed their activities, including calling.
We’d found what we were looking for. These were Couch’s Spadefoot Toads.
I posted an image of one of these animals a couple of weeks ago and commented then about its fascinating lifestyle. This amphibian spends 99 percent of its life lying dormant in an underground burrow. It is a prodigious digger. A spadefoot toad’s burrow can be up to four feet deep. It emerges only one or two nights a year during the summer, invariably right after a thunderstorm, to feed and to mate. Then, it’s back into a burrow for the remainder of the year. You’ll notice that the individual depicted above still has dirt on its head and back, indicating that it’s just emerged from a burrow.
Spadefoot toads mate in pools of water — even puddles — left over by a rain. It’s not only a frantic race to reproduce but an even more frantic race for the eggs to hatch and for the youngsters to mature. They must complete the process from eggs to toads before their puddle evaporates. Eggs hatch within 15 hours of being laid, and the tadpoles become little toads within about two weeks. A female Couch’s Spadefoot Toad can lay up to 3,000 eggs at a time. Reproduction is a success if one or two of them hatch and the offspring mature.
Here’s an image of a pair of Couch’s Spadefoot Toads mating. I find these toads to be extraordinarily beautiful. Their eyes are among the most compelling of any animals that I photograph.
The male is much smaller than the female. Getting an image like this is a matter of extreme good luck and timing. Rene and I were delighted. We hit the one night of the year when the toads were in love.
Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180 mm f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, M setting. The first image was shot at ISO 125, f11 @ 1/160. The second image was shot at ISO 250, f10 @ 1/160.