Coast Chronicles: Journeys, Butterflies and Orb Weavers

<I>CATE GABLE photo</I><BR>One of the many orb weavers on the author's Nahcotta property.

Fall unfolds apace on the Peninsula.

The vine maples are shades of pumpkin-orange, the pumpkins look like big tomatoes and the tomatoes, we pray, will turn from green to red before the rains begin.

Having accepted the passage of summer, the joys of fall become apparent - time to make applesauce, can those evanescent peaches, and make sure the woodpile is stocked.

Got generator? According to meteorologist Clifford Mass, this winter may be wetter but he doesn't expect big winds; so those of us who've put off the purchase of a back-up generator may be able to squeak through another season. (However, Prudence recommends taking a dozen cookies to your closest neighbor who does have one, just in case.)

The Arachnologist Speaks A family wedding and incumbent guests necessitated a stay on the spare bed in the garage-cum-spare-room last week. After the first morning, I had what I assumed was a spider bite on my leg.

The next evening, I carefully captured all the visible black and brown spiders (using the large plastic cup and sheet of paper method) and placed them in their own distinct territories around the yard.

On my second night of spider relocation, a dim light bulb in my head became brighter. There are tons of fat-bodied spiders in the yard during the day - all sitting at the hubs of beautiful round webs - but none of them looked like the spiders I'd been moving from the garage. Hmmm.

A call to Rod Crawford, curator of arachnids at the Burke Museum, began my foray into arachnology. (Note that the book of spider information is an epic, and the notes constitute the first sentence in the first paragraph of that tome.)

Rod confirmed my fears. "There are inside and outside spiders; and the inside spiders have evolved along with man since he first began building buildings."

"They have adapted to climate control, eating less and needing less water."

Outside and Inside Spiders So, my humanitarian efforts were for naught. I had been relegating these inside spiders to certain death outside.

Inside spiders don't know anything about seasons since the omni-season in the house is climate controlled by us. Also, since they are not hunting in the big out of doors, they are limited by the number of bugs that make it inside the house.

Further, since it doesn't rain inside there is less water, unless you leave out tiny spider watering bowls.

The outside spiders, so apparent right now, are called cross orb weavers, named after the amazing round webs they weave. These spiders hatched around Cinco de Mayo and were those tiny almost translucent yellow spiders I remember seeing in the garden when I (idealistically) planted my tomato starts this spring.

They have been industriously weaving and eating all this time and now the females are big-bodied and ready to lay eggs. The males, "more adapted to mobility than web weaving, have probably died by now," says Rod. "But the females will soon be looking for a sheltered place to put down a silk platform, lay their sac of 100-900 eggs, and wrap them again."

(The females have already mated with the males and are storing sperm inside themselves ready for self-fertilization when the time is right.)

Then he says, as if out of nature's best romance novel, "most females stay near their eggs and starve." Although some will make a new web and forage some more, their job is basically done. Rod says, "they'll all be dead by mid-January" leaving their bundle of eggs to fend for themselves, ready to hatch in May and begin another cycle.

Relocating Orb Weavers Orb weavers come in a variety of sizes and colors. The ones we see around our yards are most likely an invasive species: the cross orbweaver (Araneus diadematus). They have stark white cross-like markings on their backs.

There are a few natives, but like invasives everywhere, whether plant or animal, these spiders have robustly adapted to our environment and squeeze out the locals.

Their amazing webs cross paths, go from trees across vast spaces of yard, and hang from the eaves. Kathleen Sayce has a great tip for these spiders.

"Orb weavers tend to have a territory. If they've made a web across a stairway or a place that is inconvenient, even if you take the web down, they'll make another one in the same place in a couple of hours."

"I take a stick and move them to a different part of the yard - that seems to work best."

Sure enough - I had a weaver who was making a big web consistently between me and my outside water faucet. I moved her gently and le voila! Problem solved.

Woolly Weavers and the Brown Recluse Not all spiders make such a magnificent, classic web as the orb weavers. Rod mentions that he saw one of our common spiders in Bob Pyle's house several years ago, Callobius severus. (There is no common name for this spider; one of the advantages for arachnologists. As Rod says, "mostly we have only one set of Latin names to memorize, rather than two names for everything.")

Callobius severus frequents logs and old growth trunks. They make a woolly messy-looking web in cracks and crevices. Rod says if the house is surrounded by big trees and not super air tight, sometimes they make themselves at home inside.

"It's a relatively big spider with reddish carapace and legs, but other than that most spiders indoors are not North American," says Crawford.

He also scolds me for assuming my bite (or bump or whatever skin problem I had) was from a spider. In short, spiders get a bum rap, mostly based on misinformation.

"The Brown recluse, Loxosceles reclusa, is a medically significant spider that occurs in 15 states centered on Missouri," said Rod. "Any doctor on the West Coast who tells his patient she was bitten by a spider that does not exist within 1,000 miles of his state, should be immediately sued for malpractice."

"We've published a list of papers in medical journals as long as your arm on this problem, but there are still plenty of clueless doctors who haven't gotten the message."

Rod produces a fabulous web page of spider myths at http://tinyurl.com/2c7o2ao.Or look at the non-technical paper on the brown recluse at the AMA site: (http://tinyurl.com/2b8f274)

Butterfly Big YearAnd since we've brought him up: Robert Michael "Bob" Pyle or, as he was introduced at his recent Time Enough Books reading in Ilwaco, our "regional treasure," has been introducing us to another small family on the Tree of Life for decades - the butterflies.

Bob has just completed another of his wild adventures - a big year for butterflies - and, as he continues to do year after year, has written about it with humor, wit and sophistication.

Birding and "butterflying" are similar in that there are 900 bird species and 800 butterflies. A "big year" in birder terms is a contest to count the number of species one finds in a year. (There's even a new movie "The Big Year," directed by David Frankel, about three avid bird watchers competing to spot the rarest birds.)

Bob took 2008 to realize his goal. His territory was the mainland U.S.A., Alaska and Hawaii. "I organized my adventure in 'rays' emanating from my home in Grays River," said Bob at the reading. "I drove everywhere in my trusty 1982 Honda, Powdermilk."

Accompanied by Marsha, his butterfly net, and the Leitz binoculars he has carried for 30 years, Bob concluded his quest at South Beach in Florida.

"When the last gulf fritillary, cloudless sulphur, and fiery skipper went to roost, I'd tallied 488 species, unofficially - 489, if you count the mystery nymphalid that came and went over the Caribbean. The last sun of 2008 disappeared into a diffuse pink contrail from Havana, and that was that."

Bob knows it's always about the journey, never the destination. Now it's time to savor this accomplishment and hatch up a new adventure for next year.

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