Unfamiliarity: I must confess to spending a majority of my time at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge listening for birds. Coots, mockingbirds, blackbirds, warblers and many other avian species dominate the soundscape, so it’s been easy for me to overlook other creatures that make up the sounds of the refuge. Frogs and toads in particular contribute to the soundscape, but in past recording attempts I could only hear a chorus of American Bullfrogs. The big, buffonish croakers are interesting creatures when they’re in the right environment, but unfortunately, they do not belong in the warm, clear waters of Ash Meadows. They’re an invasive species, imported as a food source by the early settlers of the area sometime around the turn of the 20th century. Frog legs are a cheap, easy meal, although it takes more than a few to make a satisfactory serving. (And yes, frog legs really do taste like chicken.) Unfortunately, the American Bullfrog thrives in the warm springs of Ash Meadows and breeds like flies, so-to-speak. They’re big, voracious and easily out compete the native species of frogs and toads for territory and food. However, on a particular lovely evening in May I made another attempt to record the native amphibians, and was fortunate to hear a couple of toads perform a good show for me. It was recommended that I try the Point of Rocks area, and arriving just before sunset, I set up in the dense mesquite bosque, about a hundred yards or so from King’s Pool. Listen to the recording where at :36 seconds you will first hear the eerie cry of a Western Woodhouse’s Toad, followed at :46 seconds by the little chirping call of a Western Toad.
Physically, both toads look very similar, but their calls couldn’t be anymore different. To my ear, the Woodhouse’s call sounds more like a scream, while the chirp of the Western Toad reminds me of a Western Kingbird’s early morning call, chirping and warbling. Being a rather naive naturalist, I wondered if maybe the Western Kingbird had an nighttime call that I had not heard before. But I asked Dr. Jim Boone to listened to the recording, and he confirmed that the little chirper is a Western Toad. I should point out that Dr. Boone publishes an excellent website (www.birdandhike.com), and I highly recommend it to anyone who has interests in the flora and fauna of southern Nevada and the areas many hiking trails. The Woodhouse’s scream caused me to occasionally remove my headphones just so I could regain my bearings. Funny thing about sitting in the dark woods, wearing headphones and listening with highly sensitive mics, without a visual reference, my aural senses became a bit distorted. My stereo mic rig is very good at discerning direction of sound but proximity of sound can suffer a bit. Was that close, or just loud? Not that there was anything to worry about out there, except for snakes, which don’t usually make any sound… usually. Listening to the dark forest, reminded me of a story told by Dr. Bernie Krause in his recent book titled, “The Great Animal Orchestra.” While making soundscape recordings in the Amazonian jungle, he wrote, “I was allowed to accompany a group of men on a rare evening hunt. I quickly discovered that they found their way through dense ground-level vegetation without the aid of torches or a clear view of the night sky, guided primarily by subtle changes in forest sounds. With startling accuracy, they were able to follow unseen animals directed by the slightest variations of insect and frog articulation.” After a few hours I packed my gear and began the return hike, and – I tell you the truth – my headlamp batteries failed. A bank of clouds drifted over the quarter moon requiring that I navigate the trail in near darkness. As a member of modern society, my loss of familiarity with the nighttime world startles me.