First impressions of Peñalara Spring chorus after Sunset
Fresh off a 7am plane from Zürich, I was warmly welcomed at the Madrid airport by Dr. Jaime Bosch and Celia Serrano of the SOS Anfibios research team and together we embarked directly for Guadarrama Mountains National Park to rest before fieldwork the same night. The Madrileño sunshine was delivering unusual Mid-May Summer-in-Spring balmy temperatures, a promising sign for a fulfilling first night of frog work in Peñalara. Our quest was to find the few surviving adult midwife toads, a challenge given that there are only a few surviving adults remaining in a park where they are considered nearly extinct.
I had long awaited to experience in person in Peñalara park, a name that resonated familiar, eerie associations of early enigmatic disease outbreak, the textbook images of mass mortalities of midwife toadlets, recently emerged metamorphs from the lakes. The classic example for a protected park’s species made vulnerable to a chytridiomycosis outbreak in the heart of Europe in the mid-90's.
What awaited me that evening was no less short of an amphibian paradise. As we hiked the 5-hour roundtrip trail to Laguna de Los Pajaros, weaving our way through the many ponds that dotted the rocky landscape and even larger lakes -some permanent, some vernal and others still bordered by a slab of winter snow – yet all water bodies seemed to feature at least one of seven species of amphibians that I would see that evening! Even from my fieldwork in the tropics, I could hardly recall experiencing such tremendous amphibian diversity in a single evening. All species seemed relatively abundant except for the midwife toad which had nearly gone extinct from the massif.
By midnight Jaime could locate the only adult we could hear calling near Charcas Secas from a quarter a km away by mimicking his call. And after an hour of doing whistle 'playbacks', we finally retrieved the male from his borrow beneath a large stone slab. And even he thought it was a miracle to find at least one toad.
I took out my swabs and brushed it against our one lone specimen and thought how precarious this science was based upon the backs of so few individuals threatened in their own existence. The culture was critical to my research and I needed to make viable plates from the skin secretions collected. It turns out a few days later that the spread of the bacterial colony was indeed moving forward with the samples obtained.