Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Swamps, Shovels, and Sleepy Toads

What’s worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm? Biting into an apple and finding half a worm! My father was a gentleman, especially when it came to telling jokes. He may have enjoyed off-color humor but never in the presence of little ladies. He told me this one when I was six or seven. The imagery induces squirmy shivers still.

I wasn't thinking about apples or worms on a recent trip to central Wisconsin to document wetlands, though. This spring has been a dry affair. Studying swamps and wetlands at this time of year usually requires knee-high rubber boots but not this spring. Mats of water-stained leaves compressed by winter’s snow and ice lay dry and crumbly on many wetland beds. Sedge tussocks pop up like skyscrapers from soils barely moist at the surface.

Many people assume water must be present in these types of habitats throughout the year. Some basins, though, contain water for a short period of time, usually in the spring, and remain dry the rest of the growing season. Even in the absence of standing open water, soils can be saturated for periods long enough to support a distinctive assemblage of wetland vegetation.

Often cat tails or reed canary grass in degraded wetlands spread like a virus and conquer the sublime interplay of sedges, rushes, and dichotomous herbs (think milkweeds and lobelias). Tussock sedge and woolgrass dominated this particular wetland. In spite of the lack of obvious water, the ground was soft and spongy. As I labored over digging a test pit (the first one of the season), the shovel sliced through the soil, guillotine-like. I piled mounds of muck to the side of the hole as it grew to about 10 inches square and almost 16 inches deep. Next, we needed to look at a full top-to-bottom profile of the soil. I moved the shovel back about three inches from the edge of the hole and sunk it in, pulling the handle towards me to leverage out the section. With little effort, I pulled an intact 14-inch long column of soil out, letting it rest on the shovel blade. The steel-gray soil near the top became flecked with large masses of deep reddish brown about six inches down – a perfect example of a wetland soil.
Two unexpected pea-sized yellow dots, standing in stark contrast to the enveloping dark muck, drew my attention to the tip of the shovel. Staring back at me were the eyes of a sleepy toad, hardly moving, yanked from his winter hibernation in the muddy swamp. His warty skin was nearly the same grayish color as the surrounding soil so at first I thought my eyes deceived me. I was not sure if he was even alive as many hibernating frogs and toads, after having buried themselves in pond mud in the fall, don’t survive the harsh northern winters. Yet he seemed to be none the worse for being so rudely awakened. I sent him on his way with a gentle nudge.

They say that horseshoes is a game of inches, where being close really does matter. For this toad, it was a ringer. His first brush with destiny left him unscathed at the base of my hole and his second stroke of luck landed him exactly at the tip of my shovel, within a three-inch margin of error. Indeed, what a lucky toad that, on this day, the scales of life and death kept him in the land of the breathing. I find this miraculous. My unwitting participation in this two act play of Mother Nature reinforced the notion that small miracles happen every day. It took a toad to remind me of that.

And, then the remembrance of that childhood joke rocketed back to the present. What would be worse than digging up a toad? Half a toad, of course!

Image: copyright Tom Gula, http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/american_toad.htm

No comments:

Nature Blog Network