Western Toads a Welcome Sight on Whidbey
Habitat Loss Contributes to Species’ Decline in Western States
Paula Flores looks forward to the regular visitor who arrives on the front porch of her Greenbank home at night.
Flores has observed a Western Toad resting on her porch most evenings since early September. It follows a similar routine: Sitting and just hanging out.
“They don’t do much but sit and wait for a meal to come by,” Flores said.
Flores is delighted by her special guest. She considers it part of the charm of living on Whidbey Island. She’s seen a number of toads on her property since she began living on the island full-time eight years ago.
“I enjoy all of our wild creatures here on Whidbey and find them all interesting,” she said. “The Western Toads are especially fun because for some reason, I don’t remember seeing them anywhere else I’ve lived.”
It’s no longer common to see Western Toads in many places where they were once found. They are a species being closely watched because of a sharp decline in their numbers in places where they were once abundant in the western United States and British Columbia. Now considered very rare in the Puget Sound lowlands, Western Toads are labeled a Candidate Species by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, meaning they merit further assessment to determine whether they should be listed as threatened or endangered. Destruction of habitat, disease, chemicals, and other environmental factors have all contributed to the Western Toad’s decline.
“The poor, old Western Toad,” said longtime Camano Island resident Tom Eisenberg, president of Friends of Camano Island Parks. “I haven’t seen them for years on the island or in my wanderings off the island. They used to be common in rural Snohomish County when I was a kid.”
Populations of Western Toads can still be found in wooded parts of Whidbey that have wetlands nearby. Toads breed in ponds in the spring but spend most of their lives in upland forested areas. People like Flores who live near such areas often get a surprise in their gardens.
“I have been startled by toads as I trowel dirt for new plants, but I’m always delighted to see them,” she said.
Christine Pace, who lives on a wooded property outside of Coupeville, notified us in July about large toads showing up on her patio. She was intrigued by the gentle, seemingly oblivious creatures and wanted to learn more about them.
In many places around Western Washington, such sightings used to be the norm. Habitat loss has changed that.
“I once had an elderly gardener tell me that when he was young, everyone had a resident toad in their garden,” said Ruth Milner, district wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Milner, who’s based in La Conner, collects data on toads and is especially interested in learning of breeding sites to better understand how the species is faring in certain areas. The WDFW confirmed a breeding site on a Land Trust preserve near Dugualla Bay in the summer of 2017 when young toads were seen in large numbers preparing to migrate from the wetland to upland forests. It was an exciting find considering the Western Toad’s status and the restoration work done to benefit wildlife at the preserve in recent years.
“I once had an elderly gardener tell me that when he was young, everyone had a resident toad in their garden.” – Ruth Milner, wildlife biologist
If you spot a toad in your garden, consider yourself lucky.
“Toads eat insects, and like bats, help keep the insect world in balance,” Milner said. “So, think of them as a natural source for insect control wherever you encounter them.”
An uptick in sightings often coincides with rain when toads are generally most active. This time of year, they’re on the move to upland forests to spend the winter burrowed under soil or hidden inside or underneath woody debris. Toads, however, are nocturnal so they’re usually hard to spot in the daytime.
Flores finds everything about them interesting and funny.
“They seem kind of domesticated and aren’t afraid of us humans,” said Flores, adding that she was able to hand feed one toad an earthworm. It kept flicking out its tongue until it nabbed the worm.
She said a neighbor, who is a glass blower, will sometimes find toads in her shop after she’s fired up the furnace.
Said Flores: “She just picks them up and lets them sit on the porch.”
Spot Any Tiny Toads?
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is interested in Western Toad breeding sites. If you find any tiny toads in Island County, that means a breeding site is nearby (toadlet migration generally happens in July or August). Report such findings to Ruth Milner, district wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, at Ruth.Milner@dfw.wa.gov. Or you can use the WDFW’s new tool to report wildlife observations.