It’s a frog, all right. The Couch’s spadefoot, Scaphiopus couchi, is definitely a Cochise County amphibian. Though often called a “Couch’s spadefoot toad”, it is not a true toad at all. Frog! Frog! Frog!
Unsurprisingly, I’d never managed to write about this species before. They burrow underground and basically hibernate for a good ten months of every year, surfacing only when the monsoon rains arrive each summer. Photo ops are limited to night encounters with nothing but flashlights for illumination; no-flash pictures tend to blur due to extremely low shutter speed while flash shots are generally just…ugly. Added to that is the feast or famine problem. When the rains are too light, there aren’t that many sightings–and when they’re too heavy, various species of frogs (not just the Couch’s spadefoot) come out to play in our temporary ponds, making plenty of frog music but showing little more than eyes above the water’s surface.
This morning, however, that finally changed. A juvenile male Couch’s spadefoot sat quietly, regarding me as I stepped past it on my way to check the outside temperature before calling it a night at 3:00 a.m. It did not seem to mind either the flashlight or the camera.
Why a juvenile? Size, primarily. Online reference sources place the average adult’s length at 3 inches; this one was little more than two inches in length. Even that much is hardly infantile, though; I’ve seen them as small as the tip of my little finger.
Why a male? The females, in addition to being larger, have more striking dark spots than do the males, and this one’s markings were fairly faint. Except for a couple of small red spots, that is, which were most likely results of a minor skin scrape or two. Perhaps this one was just a baby when he had to burrow under last year, scraping himself on a rough spot as he emerged to greet the rains of 2014. Or perhaps not, but it’s as good a theory as any. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
These frogs have keratin-powered digging surfaces under their large hind feet…spades. Spadefoot. Aha! That even makes sense…especially if you’re a little frog surviving by digging into the earth for the bulk of your life span. And the life span of these little guys is not bad, up to 13 years in the wild for those who escape predators happy to dine on frog for dinner. The whole frog, not just its spade-tipped legs.
For food, they eat all sorts of bugs. According to desertmuseum.org:
Preying primarily upon beetles, grasshoppers, katydids, ants, spiders, and termites, a spadefoot can consume enough food in one meal to last an entire year!
Not a bad trick, that.
One thing does seem a bit puzzling. The authorities agree (or maybe they all just copy each other) that spadefoot frogs thrive best in sandy soils where they can swiftly burrow under cover at a moment’s notice and stay there pretty much year around…but on our acreage, the soil is anything but sandy. In fact its high clay content is so intense that I was able to build the walls of the Border Fort (our home) using earthbags filled with soil left over from the septic system excavation. It’s not quite modeling clay, but it does dry like oven baked brick. How the Couch’s spadefoots make that work is a bit of a mystery, but they do.
We know we have other frog species living here because we’ve heard them call in force during heavy rain years. Since we founded our Cochise County homestead in early 2009, the heaviest rainy season we’ve experienced was last year, 2013. During one impressive cloudburst, five inches of rain water pounded our place in a single three hour period one evening, and that was far from the end of it. There was water, water, everywhere and frogs everywhere as well. This year, so far anyway, it’s what we call a “nonsoon” season, light to medium rains or none at all on a given day.
Even the nonsoons are enough to bring out the Couch’s spadefoot critters, though…and we finally have photographic proof that amphibians really do live in the desert.