Nature Notes: The Call of the Spadefoot

Eastern spadefoot toads, like this one in captivity at the South Fork Natural History Museum, have specially designed “paws” that allow them to burrow like a mole, and an eerie quacking call that can be heard before they emerge from the soil in heavy spring and summer rains. Durell Godfrey

The longest day came and went without so much as a whistle. The Alexandrians of Egypt figured out more than 2,000 years ago that on the summer solstice, when the sun was almost as high in the sky as it would ever get at noon, they could gauge the height of a structure or tree simply by using a Pythagorean theorem: Measure the length of the shadow that the sun cast. It’s the same as the height of the object you are measuring. The old isosceles triangle ploy. I’m not sure it works at this latitude in this part of the world.
    Friday’s downpour precipitated at least two big events in the local amphibian world. Saturday night, Andy Sabin was out listening and looking for eastern spadefoot toads. After a considerable rain during hot weather times, these fossorial, seldom seen creatures come out in droves. Andy was on Atlantic Avenue near the ocean in Amagansett when he found spadefoots crossing the road on the way to the breeding pond. How they know where to go to mate after a year or more underground is a question that even the Alexandrians would not be able to answer. I guess they are born with mini-global positioning systems, a sense and memory of direction that few humans possess.
    Interestingly, they start calling before they’ve even dug themselves out of the soil. The ground can be practically pulsating with their duck-like quacking, and if you didn’t know about spadefoots you’d think that you were about to witness the emergence of the walking dead. Because of its very dry climate, Australia has as many burrowing frogs as ones that stay above ground all year. North America has a mere handful, all spadefoots. They have specially designed “paws” for digging, thus the modifier “spade” in their common name.
    I was 17 when I first learned about this species on Long Island. It was 1952 and I had driven from Mattituck to Riverhead to take in the stock car races on a sultry July Saturday evening with the windows open. I hadn’t heard anything unusual on the way. A big thunderstorm with pouring rain interrupted the races. On the way home after the rain had stopped, I heard strange sounds coming from a wetland depression on the north side of County Road 58, before the roundabout.
    I stopped the car and listened. The sounds got louder and louder in a tumultuous cacophony that was much like the late afternoon chorus of hundreds of crows settling down at a wintertime roost. But the sound was coming from below, not from the canopies of trees above. I figured it must be some kind of frog or toad.
    When I got home, I got out my edition of Roger Conant’s “A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians,” which I still use today. Looking through the section on frogs I came across the eastern spadefoot and its voice, “an explosive grunt, rather low pitched, short in duration, but repeated at brief intervals. Some persons liken the sound to the call of a young crow.” That was it, my first Long Island spadefoot toad. I didn’t hear another until I went out listening for frogs the evening of Hurricane Belle in July of 1976. I came across a bunch cawing away on Sandy Hollow Road on my way to North Sea in Southampton.
    On Saturday evening on the way home from a party in Montauk I got caught up in a traffic jam where Route 27 leaves Hither Woods and descends onto Napeague. I had the windows open and was treated to a bunch of tremolos of a pitch close to C above middle C. They were coming from both sides of the road just west of where Montauk Highway and Old Montauk Highway merge. I knew immediately what they were. Gray tree frogs. There had to be hundreds of them calling. On that 1976 July evening when the spadefoots were calling in Southampton, they were joined by a chorus of gray tree frogs.
    I took the back roads on my way back to Noyac, stopping and listening at this and that waterhole. I didn’t hear any at Chatfield’s Hole on Two Holes of Water Road in Northwest, but around the corner, there were dozens calling around Crooked Pond off Bull Path. Crooked Pond is little more than the size of your average living room, but it is evidently home to gray tree frogs, and that in and of itself makes it all the more worthwhile.