Spring arrives for common toads

Written by Lucy Brzoska

There was something strange down there in the water.

I was walking the GR 5 from Sant Celoni to Montseny village, and had just spotted a grape hyacinth.  There’d been violets and speedwell along the way, but this was the first real spring bloom of the year.  I went up to have a look at the raceme of tightly clustered flowers, ranging from dark purple at the bottom with delicate white frills, to bright lilac on top, where they are sterile.

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The grape hyacinth was growing just by a concrete irrigation pond, full of murky green water.  Something in the depths grabbed my attention.

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It was a lump of toads, warty, saggy and stretched into a kind of ball.  I wasn’t even sure they were alive until a hind leg kicked and the ball drifted to a new spot.

After watching a while, I realised a gargantuan struggle was taking place.  At the bottom of the pile was an enormous mottled female, and clinging to her were at least four males, each a different colour – ranging from mustard yellow to dark grey.  Each was intent on levering off his rivals and manoeuvring into a better position.  Webbed feet were rammed into faces.  Heads were squashed under limbs. The shape of the ball evolved and floated about at the bottom of the pond.

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Intense competition like this can cause female toads to drown: they are bigger than the males but not strong enough to shrug off so many persistent suitors. It struck me as a system gone askew, with an inexplicable imbalance between the sexes.  But Mel on the forum explained that males are usually the first to arrive at the spawning sites, rearing to go.  So the first females to show up are outnumbered and put under enormous pressure.

An unattached male swam to the corner of the pond, iridescent orange-red eyes visible above the surface – a common toad’s most attractive feature – and began calling to summon more females.  It was an urgent but gentle sound – common toads don’t have vocal sacs -  similar to that of  a coot.

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At the other end of the pond were strings of small black eggs, freshly laid.

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It had turned into a spring walk.  Turo de l’Home’s snowcap was melting fast, and there was a roar in the beech woods, as fierce white torrents gushed downhill.  Butterflies were out in the sun: Brimstone, Cleopatra and Peacock.  At the end, when you have to run to catch the bus in Montseny village, there was a grassy bank covered in white violets.

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