In the short time that I have been interested in frogs I have learnt that there is one significant benefit. Frogging weather is just about the complete opposite to good birding weather. As a birder I would have looked at today’s weather in a weather report a few days’ ahead and felt quite despondent about the prospects of finding a few decent birds. Having broadened my mind a little I checked the forecast and felt somewhat excited by a prediction of rain (sometimes heavy) throughout the day.
Perfect for finding a few frogs.
It seems as if birding and frogging are completely complementary to one another, so whilst the rainy days of winter keep all the birds hunkered down as they try their best to rough out the misery, the frogs come out in force and give us all a far better opportunity to find them.
I have also learnt that frog expeditions are quite different to a birding trip and thinking that you are going to find a multitude of species in one excursion is foolish. With birding we will often rack up a species list of almost 100 in a half day trip to the West Coast. In that hundred there will often be one or two that are very special but one is seeing a large variety of species. With frogging it seems as if the one or two that you do see are almost always special. The great thing about that is when you do find the species you have targeted it is a very exciting moment, just like when you see that one very special bird in a birding trip.
Another important thing that I have learnt about frogging is that it is critical to be with the right people when looking for them. I have had a fair number of fruitless outings in the last few weeks. Fortunately the monotony of this lack of success was well and truly broken with our very special Cape Peninsula Moss Frog (see blog here) last weekend but I am pretty certain this find was an extraordinarily lucky one. There is no doubt that I was headed for lots more bumbling unless I got together with people that really knew what they were doing.
Today was the day when I finally managed to do that. All three of my boys left early this morning for George to spend the first part of the school holidays with their grandparents so they wouldn’t be joining me. I did have some high calibre companions though. In all fairness I have to admit that I was more of a tag along than an organiser. In desperation to find a few frogs I had called Cliff Dorse on Saturday afternoon to see what he was up to and it turned out he and Suritha were joining Trevor and Margaret Hardaker and Barrie and Roselle Rose to search for Sand Rain Frogs at Cape Point Nature Reserve.
I promised I would behave myself if they would let me join them in their search for this elusive little Breviceps frog that would hopefully be revelling in the miserable weather that came through the park late on Sunday morning.
After serious frustration in trying to get into the park unsuccessfully using my valid Wild Card I eventually decided to pay the R85 to avoid spending my entire Sunday morning at the entrance gate trying to solve the mystery of the Wild Card system. I chose the high road and handed my cash over and headed straight for Bordjiesdrif where the search would begin.
I found 6 raincoat clad people wandering around in the fynbos a short distance away from the ocean and that was where the search for the Sand Rain Frog began.
The Breviceps frogs are an endemic family of wonderful looking species that are notoriously difficult to find. I discovered that they are fossorial (a new word for me, meaning that they are burrowers) which is one of the reasons they are so tough to find. Because of their burrowing habits they are found in soft, sandy soil and spend most of their time underground. They only really emerge when it rains, hence their common family name of rain frog.
Amazingly several species of rain frogs are actually quite common but due to their size and their fossorial habits (okay, I’ll stop using my new word now) they are rarely seen by anyone unless they are searched for with great skill and intent. If you live anywhere in Cape Town I can guarantee you that you have heard the single ghostly croak that is uttered by the Cape Rain Frog and if you live anywhere close to the mountain you will have heard the whistle of a Cape Mountain Rain Frog. I have now learnt their calls and I spent much of my ride yesterday morning telling my riding mates every time I heard either one of them in the misty conditions on Noordhoek Peak. This happened a lot and I don’t even think they were interested the first time I mentioned it so you can imagine how monotonous it would have become.
The other great thing about a rain frog is the way they look. They are small (around 3 to 5 cms), they have relatively small eyes in the front of a face that can only be described as “grumpy” due to the mouth that is turned down at the corners. They also swell themselves into a rather bloated ball which gives them a rather unbelievable appearance. The fact that they are very difficult to find only enhances their appeal.
The key to finding any rain frog is either with a huge amount of luck or triangulating their calls and with great patience closing in on a calling individual until it is narrowed down to a tiny section of restios where they can hopefully be found when parting the vegetation.
We had high hopes of finding a Sand Rain Frog in amongst the fynbos along the coastline at Bordjiesdrif or Olifantsbos and I was being led by the most experienced froggers I knew but the conditions just did not seem right. Initially it did not seem wet enough to bring them to the surface and then once the rain came bucketing down the wind came with it and this meant the calls were hard to hear. It also seemed to be a bit early on in the season and the calls were infrequent and sparse and so we ended up empty handed when it came to the Sand Rain Frog.
However, as I always say to my boys: “no birding trip is ever wasted” and I would certainly apply the same principle to my experience today. Just spending time in the field with people that know so much is a bit of a privilege and the more time you spend in the field the more you are likely to find. Also, being a complete novice to all things not birding related, everything we found (I should say “they” as I found absolutely nothing) was a lifer for me.
I ended up with two lifer amphibians which included eventually nailing down my first Clicking Stream Frog after so many near misses and incorrect ID’s as well as a wonderful little toad called a Cape Sand Toad. I was also lectured a little by the leaders to ensure that I noted that the hind leg of the Clicking Stream Frog is unwebbed thereby distinguishing it from a Cape River Frog – a novice mistake that I had made in the past.
I also enhanced my knowledge of frog calls. In addition to the afore-mentioned species, we heard Sand Rain Frog, Cape Peninsula Moss Frog, Banded Stream Frog and Flat Caco. The Caco we heard is, in fact, a species that is going to be split from Flat Caco and will become its own species so there was some intent when trying to find this one. Being less than 3cms in size and not usually exposing itself in daylight hours it was verging on impossible to find but it didn’t stop Cliff and Suretha giving it a real go. Their attempts sadly came up with nought so we would have to wait for another opportunity for this one.
The Cape Sand Toad was actually found under a large flat rock that not only sheltered the toad but also 5 Black Girdled Lizards. For a novice “rock turner” it was quite a sight to see 6 little animals jam-packed underneath the rock when it was lifted. It was hard to know which way to grab as they all scuttled in different directions. When lifting a rock one must be very careful to place it back in a way as not to squash whatever has moved so Trevor had all 5 of the girdled lizards squirming in his hands before we lowered the rock and returned them to safety and serenity.
The Black Girdled Lizards were not the only reptiles we found. In fact, I had thought that winter was an awful time for reptiles but it seems as if it has its advantages. Being cold blooded, reptiles require a bit of warmth before they are able to move around with any speed so most of them lie very low in winter and when you do find one it is usually so cold and immobile that it is easy to get photos of. In the summer months you may see a lot of lizards on the sun-facing rocks but it is virtually impossible to photograph them as they scuttle from one rock to the other.
The first reptile of the day was a Knox’s Desert Lizard. Yet another lifer to me but apparently very common as Trevor found about 4 of them in a space of 5 minutes. Each one of them was ice cold and was barely moving allowing for some time to get a decent pic.
The second reptile of the day was a Herald Snake. Along with the Sand Toad this was definitely the highlight for me. Once again it was Trevor that found it curled up under a rock and it was pretty cold to start with allowing for some close approaches and safe handling. Once it warmed up on the sun-exposed rock it changed personality and despite its tiny size (it was nice to see a snake so close and not fear for my life) it had plenty of fight in it. It lunged several times as we took some pics before we ultimately let it return to peace under the rock we had found it.
We spent a fair amount of time wandering amongst the restios alongside the Olifantsbos Beach and at times the rain was pouring down and the wind was buffeting but it was such a different experience to be in amongst these new creatures. I am certain that, on my own, I would have found absolutely nothing in the same time we spent out there, showing how important it was to be with people that actually know what they are doing. It was a true privilege to learn about the life on the ground as opposed to the air. As Cliff said: “it is nice to be looking down for a change, instead of up”. It will take a long time for me to learn the tricks of the trade but I am pretty sure I left with a little more knowledge than I started with.