Thursday, March 21, 2013

Trying to get started

Two-thirds of the way through March and they're predicting blizzards! Cheryl is afraid this is one of those years when you go from winter directly into the heat of summer, with no spring. The leaves on our red buckeye trees, tricked by a couple of warm days, poised themselves to open, then have been stuck in that position ever since.

This one, anyway, managed to spring open.

On a rare warm day the creatures hibernating in our yard showed their impatience to get the year started. This sluggish ribbon snake, our first serpent of the year, was sunning out by our compost piles.

We're very fond of our snakes. We're less fond of the Eastern Tent Caterpillars that attack our one plum and two cherry trees and would totally defoliate them if we allowed it. We practice ahimsa in our yard, reverence for life, but it is enlightened ahimsa, meaning we defend ourselves against direct attack. Last year I had searched these trees for the tent caterpillar eggs, in a characteristic ring around a slender branch, and removed all those I found. But this morning Cheryl pointed out the kitchen window at our plum tree and there was a white sheen at the end of a branch. An egg ring I overlooked had just hatched. You could see the empty eggs shells, and the tiny caterpillars had already woven their first tent.

On a quite warm day, the queen paper wasps that had hibernated in our eaves and attics and outbuildings came piling out to see what the new year looked like. Most of the four or five species we have behave themselves and I let the new queens start their new nests in or under the eaves. But the big red Carolina paper wasps that always start a nest on a corner of the roof over our front porch behave themselves for a while until their numbers get much above a hundred, and then they start getting uppity and threatening us and finally stinging us. One year they stung Cheryl in the eye and I had to take her to Emergency. Now I try to control them, which is not easy. There is a lot of rotten wood under the eaves right there that allows them a big space inside the roof to build their nest as large as they want, and no matter how much duct tape I stick up there, all the little holes and cracks seem to be impossible to block off completely. It's such a secure and cozy space that most of the queens the nest produced last year hibernated right there.

On the warm day when the new wasps were flying all over I put my ladder up there and bent over to look into the openings in the eaves to see what I might do before there was an established nest and aggressive guards. At that moment the new queens came boiling out and it was clear that they weren't practicing ahimsa for one minute. I decided to get down off the ladder and come back on a cold day when they were sleeping again.

On a more positive note we had a hatch of baby trapdoor spiders. Here on the Mississippi Delta we don't have real tarantulas (they're up in the mountains), but we have the next best thing, trapdoor spiders. They are like somewhat smaller, blacker, less hairy tarantulas. We sometimes see the males walking around looking for females, but for us the females are impossible to find. They live in a tube underground, with a carefully camouflaged trapdoor at the top, which they only open to grab insects which walk by close to them. We only rarely see them when Cheryl accidentally digs one up while gardening. But we know they are there because from time to time we get a hatch of babies that climb up the side of our garage on a sunny day in spring to go ballooning off into the stratosphere. This day when I saw them they had already mostly ballooned, and there were only a dozen or so left. I called Cheryl out to see them, and within an hour they were all gone. Here's one, about a quarter of an inch long, but already looking more impressive than the usual spiderling.

That was a reminder that we had committed ourselves to trying to learn the spiders this year. Now, when you begin the study of a complex new group of living things you want to start at some fairly easy point of entry. Take birds, for instance. A new bird watcher begins by trying to identify common obvious species, robins and cardinals and blue jays, and works up to more difficult groups, the warblers, perhaps, or the ducks. Then after a year or so you begin to crave more and more difficult challenges, like brown streaky sparrows, or sandpipers that are all identical except for the length of their legs or their bills. You have entered the period of decadence in your sport. I don't know where the easy approach to spiders would be. Perhaps the orbweb spiders that hang in front of you in a big web and give you ample time to study them. But I know where decadence would be: the wolf spiders. There are probably a hundred species in Arkansas, many so similar to each other they can only be identified by dissection under a microscope. Instead of sitting in front of you in a web, they are constantly running away from you through the grass and under leaves and bark. Most of them are about the size of dots.

To identify spiders you really need to have adults, or near adults, and here is the catch. The big showy orbweb spiders are adults late in summer; the wolf spiders are the first ones out. They are adult right now, and there are virtually no other kinds of spiders around. So, we must start with decadence and slowly work our way up to the easy ones.

It started one morning when Cheryl found a tiny black dot in the sink. It had fallen in during the night and couldn't get out. She put it in a plastic container for me. It was so tiny I could barely see it. I took a close-up photo of it and blew the picture up on my computer. Here it is.

Now how do I figure out what it is?

Well, I went through the eight pages of plates of wolf spiders in my new Bradley field guide, comparing the illustrations with my spider, and reading the accounts of those which looked possible. I finally came to the page of wolf spiders of the genus Pardosa, and found they had this in common with my spider: long slender legs (compared to other wolf spider genera), with long spines on them. And this picture of Pardosa milvina was the closest match:

The field guide picture exaggerates the pattern for a clarity the live examples seldom have. The bottom figure is a male like mine. Note the long spines on the legs, and note that the legs are banded (many species don't have banded legs, so that it significant). Now you see two black bands going down the sides of the cephalothorax, leaving a pale band down the center. That band is somewhat pinched in behind the eyes. The pale band continues onto the abdomen, now a long narrow shape pointed at each end, with a pair of pale spots immediately beyond it.

Return to my picture, and you see the marking on the cephalothorax is approximately like the illustration, and the long mark at the base of the abdomen is present, but much shorter, as a pale brownish area, and immediately beyond it, a pair of small blueish dots. Also of course the spiny banded legs. Let's look at mine from closer up.

I read the text on this species, Pardosa milvina, and it said they were found on the edges of ponds and streams, and could effortlessly run across water.

Suddenly we were promised an eighty degree day. We went up to Harold Alexander WMA in the Ozarks, and walked along a stream and immediately saw little dot-sized wolf spiders running along. One ran straight across the water, and climbed up on a stalk. Through our binoculars we could see the banded legs, the two black bands across the cephalothorax. We took pictures, and when we got home I downloaded them and wrote on the caption, Pardosa milvina, and thought, now I'm getting started.

But something about it kept bothering me, so after a few days I looked at the picture more critically. Here it is:

The legs were banded, but when I looked at them closely I could see they weren't spiny, instead they were very hairy. Cheryl had already pointed out to me that the black bands on the cephalothorax didn't pitch in behind the eyes, but instead they were parallel sided. The markings on the abdomen didn't look at all alike. I studied the field guide again and finally worked out that it was Schizocosa saltatrix, not even the same genus as the first one. Here is the illustration of S. saltatrix from the field guide.

It was very educational. What I learned was, I didn't know a damn thing about wolf spiders. I felt quite smug about it, because I realized I had reached the same philosophical plateau as Socrates. He had questioned all the smartest people around, and discovered that they only thought they were smart but they actually didn't know anything. Therefore, he reasoned, HE was the actually the smartest person around, because he at least KNEW he didn't know anything.