The sun slipped below a mountain range in Los Padres National Forest; the jagged peaks formed an uneven silhouette against the changing sky. In the twilight, a hawk soared over Sespe Creek, surveyed its twists and turns, and then winged above three figures who glanced up as the bird disappeared in the waning light.
“That’s a red-tailed hawk,” said Sam, a research biologist and university professor. Sam had long promised to take his friend Helen and her granddaughter Olivia on a nighttime hike to see a creature he had studied for years. Tonight was the night.
Olivia, Helen and Sam stood by the Sespe and listened. “If we’re lucky,” Sam explained, “we’ll hear something special; it’s only heard at night in the spring and summer.” Olivia took in the night sounds – hoots, croaks and howls she recognized from many camping trips. But then, against the constant gurgling of the creek, a new noise was audible.
“I heard a buzzing,” said Olivia softly. “Was it a bug?”
“Nope, not an insect,” said Sam. “Keep listening.”
Olivia heard another low buzz, which got louder, then suddenly stopped. “What is that?” Olivia asked.
“That is the arroyo toad,” said Sam excitedly. “It’s why we’re here.”
They walked closer to the creek, and their flashlights revealed its sandy banks. Sam searched for something in the shallow, trickling water. Minutes later he called out, “Come see this!”
Olivia and Helen knelt by Sam, who was shining light on a tiny arroyo toad not quite three inches long. Sam gave Olivia his flashlight and gently picked up the toad. Small and pudgy compared to Sam’s large hand, it had minuscule, pointy toes that curled around his forefinger. Olivia admired the irregular, greenish brown spots dotting the toad’s head and back. She carefully touched it. “It’s bumpy and cold but really cute for a toad. Is it a boy or girl?”
Sam smiled in the dark. “It’s a boy toad. Only the males make that buzzing or trilling sound to attract females.” Sam placed the toad carefully in the creek. “Time for him to hydrate himself and forage for ants.”
Olivia illuminated the toad until it hopped from view. “I want to see more,” she said.
“Me, too,” agreed Sam.
“Why can’t we see lots of them? Where are they?” Olivia asked.
Sam sighed. “Let’s go back to your grandmother’s cabin and I’ll explain.”
Amber light shone from the kitchen windows of Helen’s cabin. Inside, she added fresh peppermint leaves to a steaming teapot while Olivia set three mugs on a wooden table. Sam busily drew odd shapes on a large piece of paper. Olivia poured the delicately scented tea.
After a while, Sam explained his drawing to Olivia. “This bent-rectangle shape represents California, and the green-shaded places show where the arroyo toad once lived.”
“What do you mean ‘once lived’?” asked Olivia.
“Arroyo toads,” Sam answered, “once lived in creeks and rivers all over Southern California.” He traced his finger over the green area covering the lower half of the picture. “The toads lived near gentle waterways that had gravelly banks where toads could lay their eggs, find ants and other things to eat, and then burrow when it was hot.” Sam paused. “Well, over time,” he continued, “developers built lots of homes where some toads lived.” Very deliberately, Sam tore off a big portion of his drawing.
“Big farms took over some of the toads’ territory. Chemicals from farming washed into creeks and rivers, and the toads couldn’t take that.” Sam tore another piece from his drawing; about half was left.
“Some hikers and campers didn’t help the toads much either. They loved the places the toads lived – a few of these places were campgrounds – and many people came to these places. Some littered and destroyed things. Others drove or walked through the creeks, squashed the toads’ eggs, and ruined their burrows.” Sam ripped the drawing once more. Less than half remained.
“Dams were built on some waterways where the toads lived. The dams meant that rivers had too much water or not enough for the toads to live.” Sam tore his drawing a final time and gave Olivia what was left. “That small bit of paper represents all that’s left of the arroyo toad’s territory.”
Olivia looked at the small scrap of paper and started to cry.
Olivia sat with Helen in an overstuffed chair, tears welling in their eyes. Sam sat uncomfortably on a footstool nearby.
“Sam,” said Helen, “the story of the arroyo toad is just too sad for people like me and Olivia.” Sam bowed his head. Helen’s mantle clock ticked. Outside, a distant coyote howled. Sam cleared his throat, quickly wiped his eyes, and walked over to the table to get something.
“Most everyone who hears about this beautiful little toad gets sad,” explained Sam. “Some also get mad. Others work very hard to change things. I’ve tried to change things by studying arroyo toads and writing about them. We recently learned that the U.S. government has finally protected some places where the arroyo toad lives.” Sam took the scrap of paper from Olivia and taped a torn-off piece to it. He handed the taped pieces back to Olivia.
“We’re trying to undo the damage we’ve done to the toads’ territory.” He indicated the taped paper in Olivia’s hands. “We’re protecting some rivers and creeks where they live, so more toads will be born and grow.” Olivia smiled weakly.
Sam added, “A campground in the toads’ territory is now closed forever. And in the case of one river that has a dam on it, the folks in charge changed the way they control the dam so rushing water doesn’t hurt the toads’ eggs. Those things have helped. Researchers also say that some arroyo toads have changed their habits; they live farther from unsafe waterways and somehow thrive.”
Olivia sat quietly for a moment and then said sadly, “But we can’t get all the arroyo toads back.”
Helen smoothed the top of Olivia’s head and added, “No, what’s done is done. We have to be willing to help the ones that are left. There’s work to do.”
Sam looked at Olivia. “Helping the arroyo toad survive is why I’m here. Maybe it’s why you’re here, too.”