Silas Wilde searching for salamanders in the dry brook bed in Troy. Photo by Dana Wilde

We know a big toad lives in the nook between the garage and the woodpile, because we caught it there twice last week. So we look there first.

Today, no toad.

At least not right now. So Silas the 5-year-old hops and I the 69-year-old walk back across the driveway to the house, holding his white plastic container with holes poked in the lid. Sometimes there are pickerel frogs in the grass, and we’ve found little wood frogs in the ferns along the concrete foundation by the lilac bush.

“Remember we caught two last year?” Silas says. It was last week, but who’s counting.

“Yep,” I say. “Speckles and Charley.”

“They were brothers. Two brothers. Where did they go?” Silas asks.

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Before I can make up an answer, he says: “Remember the big frog? It got away.”

After we had caught Speckles and Charley and placed them into the container with some dead leaves so they’d feel at home, a bigger pickerel frog jumped practically right into Silas’ face, then took off frog-style through the weeds along the foundation and around the corner. Silas had several grab opportunities, but the frog was quicker and disappeared under the deck.

So this time, we comb along the foundation, but nobody turns up.

“What do you want to catch, Poppop?” Silas says.

Whatever an ancient Abenaki would catch, I think.

Silas holds the American toad who lives under the garage. Photo by Dana Wilde

Before I can speak, Silas holds out his hand and gestures emphatically: “ I want to catch a toad” (index finger), “a frog” (middle finger), “and a salamander” (thumb). “Two salamanders.” He’s not sure how to enumerate this because it makes four creatures altogether, but there are only two salamanders.

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“Let’s do it,” I say.

We skirt the hemlocks, spruces and birches by the back deck. He wanders in among the trees, but I steer him back.

“Ticks live in the leaves,” I tell him for neither the first nor last time. “We really need to stay out of the leaves.”

He gets that ticks are dangerous and runs back toward the pine needles and grass.

Along the woods margin, we see nothing interesting. In fact, we see little in motion. Even at the compost pile is just a small gaggle of flies. The lack of bugs is disturbing, and it’ll disturb me all afternoon, though I don’t say so to Silas.

By “all afternoon,” I mean all afternoon. We check Bonnie’s flower garden, where the day lilies have gone by and sunflowers are growing like in the “Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoon. In the big frame box by the woods where cannabis and geranium plants are growing, still no frogs. A small black spider scoots under the freshly stained boards.

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“A tarantula!” Silas proclaims.

I say I don’t think so. There are no tarantulas in Maine, except for pets.

We swing over to check the toad nook again, and suddenly a flying grasshopper wheels drunkenly past our faces. Silas swipes the container at it but misses. Now, he’s off. His determination is incredible, rare as the light of a happy eye. He chases the grasshopper past the wild rose hedge, along the birch, spruce and dogwood edge of the lawn. It flitters back toward the geraniums.

He drops the clumsy container, and in a few tries he’s grabbed the grasshopper off the ground. While I’m picking up the container, he snatches another one out of the air.

“Two! I’ve got TWO!” Silas says.

He holds the grasshoppers between his fingers to look at their pointy knees and contemplative Jiminy Cricket faces. “When You Wish Upon a Star” croons through from some ancient world that seems like last week, where I actually lived once. And where Silas lives now. I sing some staves I remember, and spot a goldfinch in the Bebb willow. Silas has no interest in the goldfinch. You can’t catch it. The grasshoppers go in the container, lid on.

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At the wood pile again, we examine some shreds of dried snake skin, which rivet his attention for maybe 30 seconds. The big American toad is still nowhere to be seen. We start debating whether this is the same toad we caught last year (i.e., last week) or a different one.

“Maybe it’s his brother,” Silas says as we continue down the driveway, watching the weeds for frogs. “Maybe his family lives under the garage, and we caught his brother or his dad yesterday” (last week).

“Hmm. Maybe,” I say.

Silas pets his green frog Beta. Photo by Dana Wilde

Along the driveway, we spot ants, a moth and a few bees. (“Bees sting, Poppop. Stay away,” Silas says.) He isn’t interested in the goldenrod, skullcap, heal-all, hawkweed, hemlock parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, steeplebush or meadowsweet I try pointing out along the way. I wonder if those vines with sparse white flowers are wild cucumber, but keep it to myself so as not to confuse anybody.

As we approach the brook, he decides to let the grasshoppers go back to their families. They spring from the container like bug popcorn.

On the short walk down the embankment under maples and birches, we have to traverse beds of dead leaves. I remind him we can’t spend any time there.

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“OK, ticks!” he says, and scrambles down into the bone-dry, stony bed of the brook.

Silas goes straight to the area where we found a two-lined salamander (last week) and flips over a hefty, mossy stone. No sentient beings in sight. You’d think every stone in drying mud would be a hiding place for something. Two more stones, nothing motile visible. Next stone, a couple of sow bugs scurry for cover.

“Roly-polies!” he shouts, and using his thumb and forefinger he grabs one. We watch its legs flail, then Silas lets it go among the stones.

“I want to catch a toad,” Silas says. “Or a frog. Or a salamander. I want to catch THREE salamanders,” and holds up three fingers.

Shoot, I wish I could arrange that.

“What do you want to catch, Poppop?” Silas asks.

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A glimpse of how this all connects together, I think. “A spider,” I say.

More stones, barren mud. He runs through the 4-foot culvert, urging me to follow, which I do, slower.

Silas pets his salamanders. Photo by Dana Wilde

Under the first stone on the other side is a two-lined salamander, just like the one we caught last week (sic). It slithers off. Arms with hands and fingers grasp, pull away stones, dig mud quick as a predator. He’s got it! I hold out the white container, and in goes the salamander.

“OK, Poppop, I want to catch FOUR salamanders. No, FIVE. FIVE salamanders.” Silas opens his whole hand. “How many do you want to catch?”

“At least five,” I answer.

More stones, more barely moist, motionless mud. We portage around some fallen trees, through tick-tenting leaves.

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He spots a fat wolf spider creep from under a mossy stone. “TARANTULA!” he says.

“OK, it’s not a tarantula. Can you catch it?” I say.

He reaches out to pincer grab it. “It might bite me.”

“No, it probably won’t bite you. Its jaws aren’t very strong,” I say. “Whoever tells you spiders bite is a little mixed up. Spiders hardly ever bite.”

“Bees can sting though,” he says.

“Yes, bees can sting, and wasps. It’s better to leave them alone while they do their work,” I say.

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“I like spiders,” Silas says.

“Me, too,” I answer. I forgot to bring a capture vial, though. The wolf spider escapes into the leaves.

We end up turning over at least 50 stones in the brook bed. Under most of them, the soil is devoid of macroscopic life, except for some sow bugs, another spider, a few worms. The weirdest find of the day is the lobster-like shell and claw of a crayfish. We’ve seen them here before. How they survive in that brook is a mystery, although they are a cousin of the sow bug.

By the time we’re ready to leave the semi-arid brook, we have FOUR two-lined salamanders in the container. Silas flips one more heavy, flat stone, but nothing. He smiles at me, with the the grace of all that’s feckless and free.

“Do you think stones are alive?” I say.

Without hesitation he says, “Yes.” A matter of fact.

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“I think they’re part of a big family we’re all in together,” I say.

This makes perfect sense to him.

“They live in the woods with Speckles and Charley,” he says.

“All our relatives,” I say.

We climb up the slope of dead leaves to the driveway, which leads to the backyard, where we resume circling for toads and frogs. His dad joins us and promptly spots the big toad, who promptly vanishes under the garage.

Later, we bring the salamanders in to show Grammy Bonnie. Then they all get to return home, too.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His book “A Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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