Tight timing for a Toadlet

Tommy and Adam in Silvermine

During this seemingly endless winter we have at least had a distraction with some of the Western Cape frogs that we have been ticking.  Some of them have been easy but most have been pretty tricky. Overall, though, it has been a lot of fun finding them and I am pleased we have been into something a little different as it has made the lack of birding interest seem bearable.

Many of these frogs have a localized distribution and some have a very limited time window in which they can be seen.  The Micro Frog was pretty limited in its timing with August being the prime month to see this endangered endemic. But, nothing can compare to the Rose’s Mountain Toadlet.  From all the accounts that I had been given the only time to find this rare little creature was the last week in August.  It seemed pretty specific to me but I trusted those that always seem to know best when it comes to frogs and I stayed patient.  Well, not as patient as I could have been – I decided to give it a try one week before the last week…

Rose’s Mountain Toadlet is not only very specific in terms of the time of the year within which it can be seen but it is unique amongst the Southern African frogs in that it does not have a tympanum (ear drum) and therefore has no use for vocalisation and, logically, it does not need to call.  This is probably why it has such a small window in which it can be seen as it is only found when breeding is in swing and eggs are laid in very specific little pools in the fynbos.  These known pools give froggers a chance to delve into the world of this little creature as they disappear into the damp fynbos outside of that breeding week and are totally impossible to find as they remain absolutely silent.

As I mentioned, I found it difficult to remain patient.  What happens if the wet conditions this winter meant that they breed a fraction earlier?

I didn’t want to take that chance so I allocated this morning to go have a look.

Not only was the timing tight in terms of the Toadlet’s breeding cycle but the Buckham family’s Sunday morning social calendar meant that our timing would also be pretty tight.  I had been given directions to these pools in Silvermine Nature Reserve but the directions were not as specific as I would have liked and I had no idea whether it was a 20 minute walk to the site or a far more arduous slog to get here.  We were expected at a brunch at 10am and I was told we had better be present and correct on time otherwise there would be trouble.  I am generally not a man to mess with these commands so I knew we had two and a half hours and that was it.

We parked the car and set on a hike of truly unknown distance.  I had expected that it would be relatively short but after 45 minutes we had still not found the plateau at the top of the trail which was where we would be looking for the pools.

My companions were, as usual, my two oldest boys, Tommy and Adam, and they were certainly not going to be holding me back as their months of cross country training ensured they were most likely fitter than me when charging up a mountain side.  A hindrance for Tommy, though, was the fact that he had insisted on wearing his newly acquired wellies and these plastic moulded boots were not designed for comfortable mountain walking.  I had tried to discourage the boots but when kids get a new toy they need to be used.

Tommy in his wellies

We kept on going, not absolutely certain whether we had taken an incorrect fork earlier on and just when I started to lose hope that we would not have time to reach the spot, the trail started levelling out and a few tell-tale signs appeared letting me know that we were finally getting closer.  A bonus moment was when Tommy spotted two birds perched on a rocky ridge not too far away.  They turned out to be a pair of Sentinel Rock Thrushes which was a lifer for Tommy and Adam and certainly a bird not that commonly seen on the peninsula.

The Rock-thrushes were soon forgotten as they bounded down the rocks and dipped out of view and our attention returned to the little pools that we were looking for.  After 3.5 kms of traipsing up the slopes of the Silvermine Nature Reserve and over an hour of uncertainty we finally found three or four little pools on a small trail next to the main track.

Toadlet habitat

Were we too early or had we got the timing right?

As we approached the first pool it became very clear that our timing was perfect.  All I could see in the “coca cola” water (as Tommy calls it) were several pairs of beady little eyes piercing the surface. And then, just below the surface, were thousands upon thousands of Rose’s Mountain Toadlet eggs.  They looked like dark little granadilla pips all joined together by thin thread looking like a bizarre pearl necklace.

It didn’t take long to find a beautiful female specimen that appeared to have very recently spawned as it had a saggy stomach that was distended from the hundreds of eggs which were now floating in the water.  We also found several males which seemed a little duller and were certainly quite substantially smaller than the female.

Tommy and Adam looking for toadlets

Adam looking for toadlets
Rose’s Mountain Toadlet
Rose’s Mountain Toadlet
Rose’s Mountain Toadlet

We had very little time to spend at the site due to our pressing Sunday morning arrangement but I was also quite happy not to be in amongst this delicate ecosystem for more time than we needed to be.  We took great care not to step in any of the pools and even greater care not to squish any of the toadlet’s that were moving from one pool to another.  We hit the pathway back to the car and I intermittently checked my watch to make sure we would be at the brunch on time.  Our ETA was 10:03am but given the lecture I had been given about being late, 3 minutes was going to be a problem.

The quick walk home

After all the stress to make sure we got back in time I arrived at the car and discovered a text message to say the breakfast was actually at 10:30.  Well, you can’t win them all. At least we saw our Toadlet and had some time at home for a shower before heading out.