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Aug 19, 2019 10:21 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Mid-August Sightings

Our “phantom toad:” a young-of-the-year Eastern spadefoot toad, measuring 0.6 inches in length, found in mid-August 2011. MIKE BOTTINI
Aug 19, 2019 11:47 AM

There have been many interesting things going on in the natural world on the East End this past week, but my curiosity has centered on the monarch butterfly, as it has most of this summer.Monarch activity seems to have peaked in my backyard this week, with adults busy nectaring on the purple flowers of buddleia — aptly named the “butterfly bush” — and females exploring suitable milkweed leaves on which to lay their eggs. The tiny, ivory-colored eggs are laid one at a time, each placed on the underside of a leaf, and many of my milkweed plants now have more than one egg, and caterpillar, residing on them.

My references state that female monarchs will lay 300 to 500 eggs over the course of their several-week-long adult lifespan. Females can pump out an egg at a rate of less than a minute per egg, but usually it takes some time to locate suitable sites between laying bouts.

In watching this process, I noticed that monarchs seem to locate their host plants — various species of milkweed — by feel, as they will land on many non-milkweed leaves in the area for a second before settling on the real deal.

The eggs are generally spread out over different milkweed plants, or at a minimum over different leaves on a plant, because the larvae (or caterpillars) are cannibalistic and will eat other monarch eggs that they encounter during their approximately two-week larval stage. In fact, the larvae eat their way out of their respective eggs, and then commence to eat the entire eggshell as their first food source.

There are always exceptions to the rules that we make up, and you may come across a milkweed plant that is covered in dozens of eggs. This is thought to be the result of a dearth of milkweed in the area, forcing a female to dump many of her eggs on one plant. There are also examples of monarchs laying eggs on non-milkweed plants. Can the larvae derive nourishment from plants other than milkweeds? I’m not sure about that.

The milky sap for which milkweed gets its name contains toxins called cardiac glycosides, or cardenolides. Despite the protection afforded by consuming milkweed leaves and sap, only an estimated 10 percent of eggs laid will result in adult monarchs. Predation, parasitism, disease, pesticides and temperature extremes (both hot and cold) take a large toll on all three pre-adult stages of the monarch’s life cycle. And conditions at their overwintering sites in Mexico play an important role in their population. What a fascinating creature!

Another fascinating creature that we share the East End of Long Island with is the Eastern spadefoot toad. Among the amphibians that still reside here, including the reclusive mole salamanders, this rates as one of the most secretive, mysterious and difficult to observe. In my 30 years of fieldwork here, I’ve only encountered this species three times. All three were chance encounters and not at breeding pools.

As with the mole salamanders, most encounters take place during mating at the vernal breeding ponds. At least that is the best chance of hearing the male’s weird, abrupt mating squawk: “e-r-r-r-r!” But unlike the mole salamanders, Eastern spadefoot toads do not adhere to a rigid schedule as to when they will leave their underground haunts and migrate toward their respective breeding pools. Under specific conditions, this secretive species will emerge to breed anytime from April through August.

Those specific conditions include relatively warm (above 45 degrees) air temperatures and heavy rains. Our wet spring and early summer seemed ideal for a good spadefoot breeding season. Yet, in contacting a number of my colleagues recently, I was surprised that none heard any breeding choruses of this species this year. Jim Ash from the South Fork Natural History Museum reported that a dozen or so small “metamorph” spadefoots were found by staff this summer, all 0.75 inches or less in length, but no breeding choruses were heard.

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