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Of reptiles and amphibians — a trek at Navajo State Park

The ecological connections between various species of plants and animals have been one of my favorite studies, and I’ve learned a lot while working in other parts of the country. However, one of my great joys about staying home in the Four Corners area this summer has been to reacquaint myself with Colorado flowers and wildlife.

After living in the subarctic for the past two summers, where only one species of frog existed (that’s right, the wood frog — no snakes, no turtles, no lizards, no toads or salamanders), it’s been especially refreshing to be back in the midst of the scaly and slippery ones.

Okay, the two rattlesnakes that appeared near our back door on separate occasions recently were less than a refreshing experience. Then again, I was fairly intrigued by their appearance and felt bad for screaming in surprise at the first one.

But, I am amazed and ashamed of myself by how much I had forgotten about Colorado during my eight summers away. Coming home for the winter kept some things present in my grey matter, but the greening, blooming, chirping, and awakenings of spring and summer delved into some depths of my memory and senses that only return at those times of year.

Hiking recently with some visitors to Navajo, I was particularly taken with our sightings of three little toads. We had come out to the Piedra River trail to find who knows what, but a variety of “what” seemed to be somewhat absent that day. Besides a few bird sightings, a deer stotting off into the trees, and several lizards scurrying into the brush, the toads seemed to be the rarer treat of the day.

I’m never sure how people will react to amphibians or reptiles. So many have an aversion to the creatures, whether natural or learned. During my own formative years, I learned to stay away from such critters, either because they seemed “icky” or might cause deformities such as warts (an old wives’ tale, of course, but nonetheless a very scary prospect for a girl entering her teens).

In spite of my gravitation toward all things furry or feathered, I eventually began to appreciate the scaly and slippery beings as another fascinating part of the animal kingdom. Hence, not being sure of my visitors’ reactions, I stayed calm until I could observe their behavior. Their reactions to the lizards seemed slightly disinterested upon the first few sightings. So, with the first toad hopping across our path, I didn’t know what to expect from them.

Fortunately, they were curious, and we watched the little toad hop hurriedly into the underbrush. A few minutes later, one of the visitors spied another little toad, about the same size and color as the last one. Then, a third matching toad hopped into view a few feet further on. Maybe they were siblings! How could we ever know? Yet it was fun to speculate such familial relations of the young of a species with their associated joy.

What made my own heart leap for joy, though, was the one visitor’s comment about the toads being a sign of a healthy forest. Here was an informed person! I didn’t need to go into any lengthy diatribe about amphibians and reptiles and their sensitivity to climatic changes in their respective environments. Nor did any heavy discussion of global climate change need to interrupt our simple appreciation of the toads’ presence.

Of course, three little toads do not necessarily a healthy forest make. I’m not a herpetologist. In spite of my constant checking of my field guides, I’m still having a hard time identifying this particular species of toad. (These might be Woodhouse’s toads but, because they’re young, their colorations just don’t perfectly match any photos that I’ve seen.) Heck, I even misidentified my little amphibian buddy from a few weeks ago as a frog. That one actually looked like the three toads on this hike, so I assume it was really a toad whose acquaintance I made.

But how do I know that this is not an invasive species that we’re seeing? Or what if these are the last of their kind? Whatever questions I might pose to myself to keep from getting carried away too far into the land of certainty when I’m in unfamiliar territory such as herpetology, the toads at this point along my hike represented a mood of hope and stability. Obviously, my visitors felt that way, too.

Perhaps because Navajo State Park was established in 1964, 47 years seems like a relatively long time for an area to be protected and undisturbed these days. The last train rode over this track-turned-trail in 1972, thus eliminating further potential for pollution and degradation. Surely the little amphibious creatures recognize these mixed woodland and riparian environments as a great place to be.

Weren’t all of the various lizards another sign of hope, as well? Along with the myriad birds and mostly full contingent of wildlife? Many, many creatures call this area home or traverse regularly through it on their migrations. Alas, reptiles and amphibians are not the cuddly-looking great white bears of the North who have become the poster children for global climate change. Their visages still produce an “ick” or a fright response in most of the human population, and they take a little more understanding to appreciate their contributions to nature. Garter snakes and bull snakes have their own appeal, especially the bull snakes that help in controlling rodent populations. I love watching lizards do their little defensive push-ups. Turtles symbolize peacefulness, strength and determination. And a few small toads have provided me with hope as well as companionship lately.

Regardless of whether one believes in global climate change or not, humans have still altered habitats in many ways that have reduced reptile and amphibian populations significantly over the past few decades through urban sprawl, energy development and air and water pollution. What a shame it would be for creatures such as these to disappear without our even noticing it, due to our human fears and arrogance.

Now, the nights are cooling, and that slight twinge of autumn is in the air. School has started, the campgrounds are emptier and Navajo’s season is winding down.

Changes are going to be happening in the reptilian and amphibian world, too, as they begin to burrow in caverns and pond bottoms for their winter hibernation. I’ll miss their comings and goings along the trails, streams and my own backyard. Once the snow melts again, though, next year I’ll have something to anticipate, something else to provide hope in and for my Colorado climate.

Navajo State Park has a number of trails and other special places around the lake to look for frogs, toads, snakes and salamanders before the cold weather settles into the San Juan Basin. Have a look for yourself with a valid Colorado State Parks pass.

If you would like more information about various activities in the park, call 883-2208 or log on to the park’s website at www.parks.state.co.us/Parks/Navajo.

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