This year I lost many loved ones who passed away, and I miss them terribly, especially my mom. I’ve had to make many difficult adjustments in 2013, so I look to the tadpole, one of the most transformational creatures I’ve ever known, to teach me to evolve with grace.
Every spring when the winter rains diminish, there’s a roadside ditch near my house that begins to dry up. If I lay flat on the road I can see into this ditch and study their lively world. First there are eggs, large gelatinous clumps of 10, 20, sometimes 50 eggs. Soon thereafter tiny tadpoles start to appear. Over the years I have learned that these are the larval stage: tadpoles of the California Pacific Tree frog (aka the chorus frog). I’ve also learned over the years to listen carefully for oncoming cars…ha.
I walk by this ditch frequently and if it becomes apparent that a large population of tadpoles are not going to survive in the evaporating ditch, my partner and I fill several clean water-filled jars with the tadpoles and quickly transport them to a small pond on our property. Tadpole season means spring is here, this lifts my heart immensely.
The Pseudacris regilla tadpole starts out as a tiny fish with a tiny tail, like the size of a rice grain, squiggling and darting around the water’s edge looking for food. They eat algae and bacteria. When the dark brownish-green body starts to get bigger, its tail elongates, creating a strong swimming creature. My favorite part is when the body gets transparent and you can see its developing vertebrae. They get bigger and stronger with each new day until one day if you look really closely, you can start to see an almost imperceptible bud between the bulbous body and the tail. This will be the frog’s legs. Soon there will be two buds, then four, then legs.
In a remarkable transformation over the next few weeks (depending on the weather), the tadpole’s legs will gradually get larger, taking on a more frog-like appearance. When it begins to look like a frog with a tail, it is close to its final stages of development. In the later stages of this metamorphosis their mouths will widen and their digestive tracts will change too. Eventually the most miraculous phase occurs: the tail starts to shrink until it has been entirely absorbed into the body.
Then one day the new little frog, about the size of a nickel, will not be in the water anymore; you’ll see it has hopped onto the land. As for hopping, they don’t land evenly on all fours at first, because they’re just learning. They hop and roll, hop and roll, then one day: hop and land.
In their short lifespan of approximately 5-9 years they have fins, then lungs; they have a tail and then it gets absorbed; sometimes they’re brown and then they’re green; they swim and then they hop. One year they’re a swimming little tadpole and the next year they’re mating; and the cycle repeats itself all over again. Each night in spring the sounds of their chorus (for which they are named) is a true cacophony that you can hear for miles. Overnite guests complain they can’t sleep for the racket. To me their “ribbits” sing of hope and glory and the miracles of evolution.
So in this new year I wish for you and for me, to continue growing too. I hope we embrace the beauties of this planet every day of this new year, and the changes, and the importance of surrendering to, yet enjoying, the natural cycles that are endlessly occurring all over this planet.
We gasp for more air
admiring her calm, vast lungs
and colorful wool
Tucked in the Peruvian cloud forest is a dense snarl of trees, leaves, and vines where this striking bird can sometimes be seen. One day our small tour group had the rare and titillating experience of watching the mating dance of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock.
Named for its propensity for nesting on rock walls, Rupicola peruvianus is in the Cotinga family, native to South American cloud forests. It is a medium-sized bird, about 13 inches long. In addition to the riotous appearance of this scarlet orange bird with the crazy discus crest, the mating display is a swirl of fast and desperate dances accompanied by an absolute cacophony of screeching.
This bird is not easily found and is a treasured “life bird” for most international birders. To get there we took several flights to the city of Cusco high in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Here we met our group and boarded a small bus. From the Peruvian Highlands we descended the dramatic eastern slopes for about one hundred miles through Andean villages and Quechua communities. Slowly making our way on narrow one-lane roads hugging the side of the mountain, we watched in awe as the steep mountainsides and agricultural patchwork fields gradually gave way to the cloud forest. Dropping from an altitude of 11,200 feet to 5,200 feet, we eventually arrived at a small and remote lodge lit by lanterns and lively with monkeys. There were so many monkeys pouncing and pounding on our roof that night that sleep was really just short naps in between their skirmishes.
Before dawn we arose, still in the dark, and followed a trail to the lek where the male Cocks-of-the-Rock compete for a mate. A lek is an area where male birds (or animals) congregate for the sole purpose of attracting a mate; there is no foraging or nesting here, just mating displays. Although there was a small platform for bird viewing, it was primarily a thick mass of limbs and vines in the impenetrable forest; one that we never would have found on our own.
As light began to filter through the canopy, first one male and then another approached the lek. They were quiet and still, resting on vines about 50 feet away. Despite their fire-engine red color, in the shadows of the trees and the dark morning they looked black and non-descript. We, too, sat quiet and still, but oh so excited, cameras and binoculars at the ready. A few more males came in, expressing an occasional brusque call.
As more minutes ticked by, more males appeared, and now they were coming in closer to where we patiently waited. Then our guide excitedly whispered that he heard a female in the distance. One, then another, until eight or nine males congregated in the immediate area.
In flew the female and the rock concert began. Some males had their wings flapping and beaks clapping, other males were perched on branches with their backs arched, or bowing and bobbing their heads. And in the midst of this choreographical fantasia the noisy racket was deafening! It sounded like a combination of video games and a flock of angry crows.
She was indifferent to it all! We humans were nearly bursting in the intensity of this performance, and she coyly dropped among the branches barely looking at her earnest suitors. For each little move she made–a turn, or a drop–the forest swelled some more with the vocalizations, fluttering wingbeats, and aerial displays.
The Andean Cock-of-the-Rock is the national bird of Peru. They eat fruit and usually forage alone, and also eat insects, including the long, undulating rows of army ants that are famous in the Amazon. Shy and surprisingly inconspicuous birds, they are difficult to locate outside of the leks. They are so shy, in fact, that no bonding pair has ever been recorded.
After about a half hour the show began to dwindle. The energetic expenditure of this kind of display is costly to the male, so it starts when the female appears and stops quickly once she has vanished. There was no finale, she simply left; and when she did, the males dispersed.
We went back to the lek the next morning before leaving the cloud forest. The conditions at the lek were the same as the previous day, but there was no rock concert this time. One or two birds came in, but there was no action. That’s when we realized, as it always goes on these nature adventures, that what we had witnessed one day doesn’t necessarily happen every day. That precious message that nature echoes in recurring gentle reminders: make every new day count, for no one knows what tomorrow will bring.