Country diary: for one week only, the reservoir is an orgy of frogs and toads

Country diary: for one week only, the reservoir is an orgy of frogs and toads

The frogs have gathered in the ponds at Lightwood reservoir for the last three weeks. Vast heaps of spawn are now dissolving into a looser, less gelid stew. The black speck in each swollen spawn eye has also lengthened and acquired a gift for sudden, if blind, wriggling movement. The adults are far fewer and the only compensation for the end of their breeding season is the fresh arrival of toads in their thousands.

At Lightwood the two species’ breeding cycles overlap for a week, and to have them promiscuously jumbled together adds a further layer of joy to the whole miraculous process. It also offers opportunities for precise comparison, such as the fiery copper eyes of the toads, set against the narrowly lemon-rimmed irides of frogs.

Both have toxic chemicals to deter predators, but toads store them in a knobbly, creased, wart-smothered and aged hide. Frogs, on the other hand, are the great slime kings. They exude a secretion that gives them an aqueous sheen, especially when half-submerged and the April sun, reflecting off the water, creates fractals shapes of glistening dark and light that blend the creatures perfectly to their aquatic world.

Mistaken identity: a male frog attempting to mate with a male toad.

Perhaps what I love most of all is the briefly shared chorus of their breeding songs. Each toad’s music is short and fragmented, with minute pips and burps of sound that have a rasping, even barking quality. It has little euphony, but it has this odd cumulative effect, because each successively delivered note, as well as those of all the other singing toads, abrade one another to create an overarching smoothness between the voices.

Frogs, on the other hand, are choral masters. They create this deep, shared subterranean song that is one part swollen-stomach’s rumble and one part big-cat’s purr. The two sonic elements give it a wonderfully comic yet deliciously dark quality all at once. Each male adds to the overall impact of his music, because he bulbs out his belly with gulps of air, then sends it all to his throat, along with a song which is the essence of spring, as a great white swelling of joy.

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