David Chapman discusses the best ways to see frogs and toads throughtout Somerset

PUBLISHED: 20:44 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:44 20 February 2013

Notice the warty skin of the common toad

Notice the warty skin of the common toad

Amongst the first of our wildlife to become active each year, frogs and toads are fascinating to watch (though you may need a torch) says David Chapman

David Chapman discusses the best ways to see frogs and toads throughtout Somerset

Although we are still embraced by winter, the warming touch of spring can usually be felt in February. During the first mild period in the month our amphibious population will certainly start to liven up and an evening spent at a pond with a torch in the next few weeks might be rewarded, quite literally, by a wild orgy of activity.

During February, common frogs leave their hibernation sites under logs or in holes where they have spent the entire winter without eating. After waking, they hop or crawl up to one kilometre until they reach what is usually their own birth pond in search of a mate. The males, who are slightly darker than the females, tend to arrive a little earlier and they sit in wait for the females, gently croaking as they do so.

A couple of weeks later it is the turn of the common toad. Larger in size and with a warty skin, the toad is more likely to walk than hop and this is one of the easiest ways to distinguish between them. Males are smaller than females but there is some variability and even other toads can make mistakes when selecting a partner. Fortunately, the males utter a 'release call', a small croak to warn off other males; the deeper the croak the more dominant the toad.

Females of both species tend to attract great interest from a large number of males. The first male attaches himself to the female's back in a grip known as amplexus, literally a 'fond hug'. Their specially adapted thumbs help them to keep a grip under the armpits of their slippery partners. Where females are outnumbered by males, several male frogs or toads might try to hold on to one female and a sparring mass of croaking amphibians will ensue.

During spawning toads lay their eggs, two wide, in a long string wrapped around vegetation in the pond; these strings can contain around 3,000 or 4,000 eggs. Frogs lay theirs in a single clump of up to 2,000 eggs, with the jelly substrate surrounding the eggs expanding, through absorption of water, after it is laid. Think of the relief that the female must feel when spawning is complete and she can head off to feed! The males, on the other hand, tend to stay around to see if they can sow their seed further.

Both frogs and toads can fall prey to predators, such as the grey heron, though toads produce an unpleasant-tasting substance to deter them. The biggest cause of death amongst their populations occurs during their travels from hibernation site to spawning pond, when many amphibians are killed as they cross roads at night. The same spots will be the focus of attention each year, with successive generations following in the footsteps of their forefathers. For this reason some people, at accident black spots, have taken to helping them across roads. Armed with a torch and a bucket they go out at night to pick them up from the road and transport them on their way.

Of course you don't have to wander the streets at night to help your local frogs and toads; you could try digging your own wildlife pond. It is very rewarding to witness wildlife making a home in something that has been created by your own hand. Last year I rescued some frog spawn from a small pool that was about to dry out. By placing it in a fish tank at home and by feeding the tadpoles on goldfish food I was able to rear many more frogs than would have been the case in the wild. It was fascinating to watch their development until finally the young frogs wanted to leave the water. They were released into my own garden pond and over the next few years I will find out if they were successful. I'm hoping that those clever little amphibians will be scattered around my garden eating all of the slugs, so apart from giving me pleasure they are also helping to keep my garden pest-free!

If you would like to know more about schemes to help save frogs and toads from roads or how to dig ponds to help protect them, then visit www.froglife.org.

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