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Rule Breaker

July 2, 2020

When I started this blog a few years ago, I made a few rules for myself; a few other rules made themselves apparent to me as I got further into the project. The first rule I made is that while this blog is personal, it is not about me. It is about the natural world and most particularly, about the natural world as it is encountered in Buffalo Bayou Park. The second rule is that it should be joyful.

The first rule that became apparent to me is that this blog is driven by photography. I am a writer, so this rule surprised me. But we humans encounter the world through our eyes. We have other senses, but for us, sight is primary. If we smell something weird in the house, we sniff everywhere until we can finally see what’s going on and decide if we have to take some action.

Now think of your dog (if you don’t have one, imagine Lassie, or, because you are undoubtedly younger than I, Scooby Doo). When a dog sees something interesting, the very first thing they want to do is stick their nose into it. They don’t understand exactly what they are seeing until they have smelled it. We don’t understand exactly what we are smelling until we have seen it.

Since I fell in love with the natural world through my eyes. My secret agenda is to make you do the same by sharing what I see. But I have been undone by a photograph of a toad. The one at the top of this post.  

He is a Gulf Coast toad. If you have ever seen a toad in Houston, odds are it was a Gulf Coast toad. They are not endangered. They are interesting mostly because they are ours.

On May 17, we had a big rain. First good rain of the spring and the Gulf Coast toads sprang into action. Their game plan is that the boys hop into a still body of water (ditch, pond, bayou inlet) and set up a racket. The girls hear all the noise and it’s on. Gulf Coast toads have orgies. There is no other way to put it. They party all night long. In the morning, there are always a few revelers left in the pond, exhausted, still in passionate embrace.

From a nuts-and-bolts perspective, the males are much smaller than the females. Their goal is to hop on the back of a floating female and make use of specialized grasping pads on their front feet (they are called nuptial pads). Positioning is important (isn’t it always), because the female will start to excrete skeins of gelatinous eggs and as she does so, the male clamped to her back will fertilize them.

The photograph of the little guy wasn’t easy, because all this takes place at night, but I was planning for a whole blog post about mating toads.

When I went out the next morning, expecting to find revelers still floating around and masses of egg skeins, I found nothing.

I checked a few of the ditches near the preserve and still didn’t see anything. I didn’t think a lot about it. Not every effort at setting up an orgy is successful.

But it is now July and still, there have been no orgies. The world is broken and this toad has broken me. It’s his earnest hopefulness. His throat puffed out to amplify his song. His feet firmly planted. Tonight is definitely going to be his lucky night. But there haven’t been any lucky nights so far this year.

Thirty years ago, when I took over maintenance of this preserve, we had so many toads that at night, the ground would appear to be hopping.

There have always been dogs on the preserve and with them always came piles of poop. Poop draws flies and flies are very tasty if you are a Gulf Coast toad. So in addition to all the hopping, every pile of poop was encircled by toads intensely watching as though at a riveting (look, a pun!) theatrical performance.

All summer long I would be entertained by toads of varying sizes. They would start out the size of my pinky nail and until fall, you would find them in all sizes. During the winter months, every solid object you lifted would reveal huddled masses of not quite hibernating toads.

Of course it’s not just toads.

When I assumed management of the preserve, there were rafts of Inca doves wafting the grounds. My heart burst with delight in their diminutive scaled feathers. It has been 15 years since I’ve seen an Inca dove in Houston let alone my small preserve.

There is a wonderful guide to butterflies of Houston written by John & Gloria Tveten.  Almost every butterfly in the book visited the preserve at one point or another. 

Each year, migrating songbirds would stop by in numbers that were, on good days, heart-stopping. The massive elm two preserves down would draw flocks of goldfinches every year as it went seed. My preserve filled with sparkling flecks of yellow and black. The elm, and the goldfinches are long gone.

That whole world has been gone for a very long time and the energy for this blog and the nature tours and anything else I can think of to do is to make you see the world as I see it so you can feel the love I have for it and when you do you will make the changes necessary in your lives, in our lives, in our world to hang on to the marvels we have still before us.

The photo of that hopeful little guy was the straw that broke me. I am hoping to heal myself with this blog post even though it is about me and it is full of sadness. And soon, I will take more steps towards joy with an improvement in what I can see and what I can show you.

In January, I bought a professional level camera and lens so that I could take really good photos of things at a distance. Things like birds! Joy ensued. I could see birds so clearly and in such detail that it felt almost as though their thoughts were being revealed. And in a sense they were. Animals reveal their thoughts in their actions. The more you see, the more you can connect.

But here on the private preserve a lens specialized for things 20 feet away is of limited use. Everything that catches my eye has to be photographed close up. So I bought a lens for macro and when it gets here, perhaps I can stop writing about myself and get back to those magnificent tiny critters who still fill me with joy, like this gorgeous giant swallowtail feasting on duranta. She’s large enough to photograph from quite far away!