• , ,

    Blogtober: spiders

    I have a sign in my apartment that says, “Keep calm, it’s just a spider.” I was torn about whether to buy it when I saw it. Of course I think that nobody needs to get upset at the sight of a spider. I am more than happy to be the spider catch-and-releaser. But on the other hand, “just” a spider? More like “it’s a fantastic spider!” I really do love spiders.

    Shelob? No, just a spider in the bush.

    There are so many different types of web spiders in my area. Some are orb web spinners, who make the familiar eight-spoked roundish webs. There are grass spiders which spin flat sheets of webbing, and funnel spiders that spin funnels of webbing in which they hide, waiting to jump out at prey that blunders into their web. I even saw one orb web spider that apparently took a lesson from the funnel spiders– it had glued together the top edges of a leaf beside its web, creating a safe retreat when a big predator (me) came poking a camera near the web!

    Funnel web spider lurking in its funnel

    The different kinds of hunting (non-web-spinning) spiders fascinate me too. Wolf spiders, jumping spiders, crab spiders. The latter are one of my favorites, especially when they match the flower they’re sitting on, so they are perfectly camouflaged. And I’ve already talked about how amazing mother wolf spiders are, in my Freaky Family post a few days ago.

    This crab spider doesn’t quite mat ch the green leaves, but it’s pretty close!

    As for venomous spiders, we do have black widows in my area. I had never seen one in the wild until moving to my current apartment, though. There’s a small field with a walking trail around its edge nearby, and I found my first wild widow (there’s a band name for you!) on the concrete retaining wall. It was so plump and glossy! Definitely worth the hunt.

    The red hourglass on the ventral abdomen shows this is a female Black Widow.

  • ,

    Blogtober: Owls

    At my very first park job, one of the programs I most loved to lead was the Owl Prowl. That consisted of wandering down the trail, just after dark, with my participants and a red-masked flashlight (to prevent us from losing night vision) and a way to playback recordings. We usually have three main owl species in my area: Eastern Screech Owls, Barred Owls, and Great Horned Owls in order from smallest to largest. The order in which we called them in was very important, assuming we wanted to run an ethical prowl. We’d always start with the smallest owl species, and end with the largest. Great Horned Owls (GHOs for short) sometimes eat the much smaller Screech Owl, and even Barred Owls who aren’t a lot smaller than the GHOs. If we started with the biggest, and had a Great Horned Owl not only call back to us but approach, then when we switched to the smaller owl(s) the GHO could just fall silent and lie in wait while we attracted its dinner. That just doesn’t seem fair for said dinner!

    A Great Horned Owl I saw on its nest in Florida. Perhaps it was thinking, “I’m a bit hungry, wonder if I could lure a Screech Owl or two?”

    So instead we called the Screech owls first. That gave them the chance to flee when they heard us play the Barred Owl’s calls. My boss could imitate all three species’ calls without needing a machine. Me, I mastered only one, the Barred Owl. I think it’s the easist to remember and also the simplest in terms of sound reproduction. The mnemonic for its cadence is, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” Check out some recordings on Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds pages if you’re interested. See if you can mimic too, in the privacy of your own home! (Those of you reading this at the office, maybe don’t try right away.) https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barred_Owl/sounds

    Since they’re so easy to copy, even on prowls when absolutely no owls cooperated with my playback, I could still send my participants home with the ability to call Barred Owls themselves! I have successfully called back and forth with an owl in the wild, one afternoon on the Washington & Old Dominion bike trail. While I don’t know exactly what I was saying, I know owls call for territorial purposes, to see who else is in their area, and for courtship. So I only called a couple times, I don’t want to either bully an owl or have one develop a crush on me. 😀

    That reminds me, though, if you hope to see/hear an owl during the daytime, Barred Owls are a good possibility. I frequently hear them around 4 pm during the late summer and early fall, several hours before sunset. I saw one on a hike with my mom one time in May as well– we were really lucky to spot it. I’m sure there are many more times I’ve been within 20 feet of an owl and had no idea. Happy owling!

    The Barred OWl I saw with my mom, It looks shocked that we could see through its camouflage as a tree stump!

  • ,

    Blogtober: Masked

    It seems fitting that after writing about how maybe orange bugs seemed more prevalent just because they were easier to see amid the green leaves, today I write about masking and camouflage. I am fascinated by the different ways creatures have of disguising themselves. From cryptic patterns on their skin/exoskleleton, to even gluing pieces of plant to their backs, there are a ton of different ways across the animal kingdom, even skipping most of the mammals. I think costume and makeup designers often pay attention to the patterns on insects and reptiles too, because the times I’ve been watching a science fiction movie or TV show and had a sudden recognition of a certain bug’s pattern in the coloring of an alien race are numerous. Unfortunately I haven’t been taking notes along the way, so I don’t have specific examples. However, if there’s anybody out there looking for a thesis topic in entomology and arts, there you go! 🙂 I’d love to hear about it if you are or have looked into this. Leave me a comment below.

    When I think about “masking,” I usually visualize something you can put on and take off, to change your appearance. Like a Halloween costume– you appear to be something you’re not, just for a few hours, then return to your normal self. I don’t know if the removability part applies to the animals I’m talking about though, usually the mask is something they keep on at all times to hide what they really are. The caterpillar of the Wavy-lined Emerald Moth is one animal that creates its own mask, by gluing bits of plant to its back so it looks like a walking clump of debris. It’s pretty amazing! I’ve looked at lots of photos and the type of plant matter seems to vary, sometimes bits of leaves and sometimes flower petal scraps. Which probably makes sense, depending on where the individual caterpillar wants to be or is. A brownish-green clump moving across a vivid yellow flower, for example, wouldn’t be camouflaged as well as one using scraps of the yellow flower petals or even flowerets. I’ve seen two of these caterpillars before, once in my garden in Rockville, and once at Huntley Meadows. Both times I only noticed them when a piece of “plant” started to move. Whoa!

    Nope, no caterpillar under here. Just some plant debris.
    The caterpillar was moving pretty quickly, giving me trouble focusing on it.
    Not only was the caterpillar positively scurrying across my finger, this was taken 11 years ago. Phone cameras have improved a lot!

  • Blogtober: The color orange

    Until I sat down to create this post, I didn’t realize how many insects show orange at my park. When you think orange insects, you might first think of butterflies, such as Monarchs and Viceroys. But there’s way more insects than just those charismatic ones. Spiders too often had a rusty orange hue. I wondered why I had found and photographed so many orange insects/spiders long before I even thought of doing a Blogtober challenge, let alone selected this prompt. With Monarchs, the bright color is a signal to predators that they’re distasteful. Viceroys too– they are Mullerian mimics, in that they look enough like Monarchs to probably fool most predators, but also taste pretty nasty in order to reinforce the message that Monarch-like butterflies = nonedible.

    Do all of these other bugs also taste bad? Are they riding on the Monarch’s coattails, benefitting from the association of distastefulness with the color orange? Or for that matter, is orange universally a signal of foul taste? Maybe the color is just a function of what they’re eating, i.e. maybe there’s lots of carotenoids in their diets? I don’t know. I went down a long rabbit hole looking for answers, but haven’t found them yet. Here’s a good article about the hows and whys in general of insect coloring: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00442-020-04738-1 I don’t have time to chase all the possibilities right now. I’ll keep an eye out for more research though, and update if there’s anything interesting that develops.

    I eventually concluded that regardless of why so many bugs are orange, it did make them easier to spot against the green foliage. So maybe I’m seeing more orange bugs not because there actually are more of them than other colored bugs, but just because it’s so much harder to see the green and brown ones! Observer bias I think.

    What do you think of my theories? Do you have a different explanation for the high number of orange bugs? Leave a comment below. Enjoy a small sampling of my orange bugs and spiders in the meantime!

    An Orange-patched Smoky Moth
    A robberfly, not sure what species yet. I’m too tired to find it.
    Monarch butterfly
    Can’t re-find my original posting of this moth on iNaturalist.
    Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillars

    I’d hoped to have more reading done about orange insects that I could tell you about. But I am really exhausted. If I have time in between the other prompts over the next couple weeks, perhaps I’ll come back here and update this post. Zzzzzzzzz…….


  • ,

    Blogtober: Lurking

    As an introvert in a fairly extroverted job, I often struggle with how to start a conversation with park visitors. This summer, though, I hit on a technique that answers my plight nicely: the “interpreter lurk.” It’s not a formal program, but still helps me figure out which visitors are actually interested in learning more about the park. Here’s how it works.

    I use the lurk as part of my usual trail rove. As I hike, I look for something that’s busy with insect activity. At the end of the summer, this often was fulfilled by a patch of blooming Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia). Wingstem is common along most of our popular trails.

    Some wingstem beside the historic canal

    Once I find a good patch, I settle in for a few minutes, just watching the insect activity on and around the flowers. I might take out my cell phone to snap photos of both pollinators and their predators for iNaturalist, or I might just observe. Within minutes, a few passersby usually ask, “What are you looking at?”

    A native sweat bee (Augochlora sp.)

    From there I point out the myriad insects. I like to reveal their behaviors, and how they interact with or depend on other plants and animals the visitors have likely seen in the park. From there, further questions almost always arise, about other insects in the park or even at the visitors’ home. I even had one family ask me how to raise the Black Swallowtail caterpillars they discovered in their parsley plant! (You can imagine my glee at that question, if you’ve read my caterpillar posts on the original Contented Naturalist, such as here and here and here.)

    I can also turn the conversation to broader themes if a group sticks around, such as how climate change might mismatch the timing of goldenrod blooms and monarch migration. Other times we might find yet another interesting animal that shifts our focus. I once had started my lurk near several large praying mantises, one of whom had already caught a bumblebee and was devouring it. Not long after pointing them out, however, a passing dog walker suddenly yelped and stumbled, trying to avoid something underfoot. When he regained his footing, he exclaimed, “A snake! A green snake!” A small green snake had crossed the path and disappeared into the tall grass. We all watched as the snake’s path was betrayed by the moving grasses. Soon it emerged at the base of a tree, and slowly wove its way around the trunk. It paused from time to time, exploring some dead vines, before eventually disappearing back into the grass.

    Here’s what we were watching before the snake made its appearance: a praying mantis devouring a very unlucky bumblebee.

    Talk about being in the right place at the right time! Likely none of us would have seen the snake if we hadn’t already been stopped on the trail to look at the mantises. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos—I was focused on pointing it out as new hikers joined us. I also didn’t tell folks much about the snake’s life or places. But my comments weren’t needed, either, for watchers (and me) to walk away with a real sense of “Wow!”


About Me

The sky is not completely dark at night. Were the sky absolutely dark, one would not be able to see the silhouette of an object against the sky.

Follow Me On

Subscribe To My Newsletter

Subscribe for new travel stories and exclusive content.