Small creatures are wild, too. This thought occurred to me as I was poking around a friend's place above Salmon Lake recently. A greenish-brown object, looking a bit like a muddy tennis ball, plopped by a nearby pond and caught my eye.
It turned out to be a boreal toad, elsewhere called the Western toad, and I was struck by how integral a part of the landscape it wasas much as bears, elk and wolves are a part of theirs.
Like their vastly larger wild counterparts, boreal toadsthe only toad species in Western Montanaare intrepid travelers. After courtship is over and eggs are fertilized, the adults wander off, going their toady ways. They're known to wander for miles from their breeding grounds, past lakes, ponds and marshes through coniferous forests and subalpine meadows. They've been seen in the high country of the Great Bear Wilderness and the Swan Range, the Little Belt Mountains, Crazies and Absarokas. Kerwin Werner, author of Reptiles and Amphibians of Montana, has even found boreal toads atop the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park, 1,500 feet above any water source.
The squat little amphibians (Bufo boreas) are a classic camo color, with "warts" (really just bumps) to help them blend in, and a characteristic white stripe down their back. Instead of leaping like frogs, they shuffle along and take occasional modest hops in search of flies, ants, spiders, dragonflies and, occasionally, smaller boreal toads to eat. Females, four inches long or so, are bigger than males, but males don't make noise about it: None of them have vocal sacs.
Given that a hot toad is a dead toad, the creatures also have a seemingly odd liking for burn zones left by forest fires, much like many insects, birds and other animals. A study around Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park found noteworthy knots of boreal toads in the most severely charred acreage from the 2003 Roberts Fire.
Researchers surmised that the warmer nighttime temperatures on the burned ground made it easier for the cold-blooded creatures to move around and find snacks. Any increased risk of losing moisture during the day was offset by the ability to take refuge in burrows or under logs, where temperatures were just as cool as at unburned sites.
Look for the toads in early June at their breeding grounds, generally in warm, shallow water without much cover. Tadpoles hatch and morph into terrestrials by late summer. A lucky hiker might find clumps of the juveniles piled on top of each other, basking in the sun.
It's said that the hoppers protect themselves by puffing up, and that their warts secrete a viscous substance that's either toxic or very nasty for would-be predators, though raccoons and garter snakes don't seem to care. My inner 10-year-old was tempted to pick up my fat, lumpy discovery that day. But rather than risk being peed on or covered in foul-smelling goo, I instead stretched out alongside to enjoy the ground's warmth and a toad's-eye view of a summer day.