Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Is summer over already?

Well, I hope not. I go a long time through late winter and early spring waiting for summer to finally arrive. And then it's over in a minute, and I haven't got any of my projects finished. Especially a summer like this one, where it never got really hot, and never quite dried out. I thought one of the dependable things here in Arkansas was an almost endless balmy autumn, but here it is, barely into November, and all invertebrate wildlife seems to be closing down for the year.

I guess I'm in denial. It's a fact, the weather was never quite right for what I wanted, and we didn't travel around the state as much as I intended to, but these are my complaints every year. Some people are multi-taskers (actually, scientific studies tell us, multi-taskers are extremely rare, which is why we get nervous when we see the driver in the next lane texting). I personally am a single-tasker (one might almost say half-tasker), it's the only way I can operate.

When I retired around the turn of the century (that feels funny to say), in a happy convergence close-focusing binoculars and digital cameras and through-the-binoculars-type field guides to butterflies all came out at the same time.  I spent every minute for a couple of summers chasing and photographing butterflies, and then I started studying robber flies, those hairy alpha predators of the insect world, and I had to concentrate on them for several years, because there were no field guides. Finally, I ended up making my own field guide. Next a good guide to tiger beetles came out, and I closed my focus only to them for a summer, then it was caterpillars, then grasshoppers.

And suddenly Bradley's field guide, Common Spiders of North America, came out just as I was making plans for 2013, and when I saw the wonderful paintings in it by Steve Buchanan, I was converted in a single second. I've always loved spiders, but there was no practical way of identifying them. Then this book came out and very difficult ID problems were solved instantly by a glance at the right illustration. I got the book, put the tunnel around my eyes so that I was unable to see anything but spiders, and got to work. Except for a half dozen spiders that were my favorites from childhood on, I really knew very little about this remarkable group. The moment things started moving in the spring I was deluged. I had often read those statistics where so many thousand spiders are found per square yard of ground. Now I began to believe it.

I quickly discovered that a number of spiders were in that 2 to 4 mm size range, which meant they were impossible to really see. Now, I had decided I was going to try to observe them unrestrained, and unannoyed, to see them going about their natural business. I wasn't going to put them in plastic see-through tubs for close photography, and I certainly wasn't going to collect them as specimens, poor faded shriveled-up things in vials of alcohol. This of course made identification that much trickier. My modus was, when I saw a new spider (several daily, when I was beginning), I would try to get a very close-up photo in a position which revealed all its markings. Then I would blow up the photo on my computer screen, and get out the Bradley, and, when he didn't entirely solve it, search through BugGuide.

I love something that's completely new, where every day I am learning new things, starting from absolute scratch, a learning curve so steep I hardly knew where to begin. And, using my total immersion technique, I did learn. I'm astonished now to look at our Picasa Web albums and see that Cheryl and I have put together images (my big camera doing the straight ahead ones, her tiny camera reaching around corners or under leaves) of some 170 species, over a hundred species just in our own backyard. If I still can't remember all their Latin names, at least I am familiar with the look of them and the design of their webs if they are web spinners. There are species I especially want to see that I have missed so far, but there are many more species we found that I didn't dream we would.

Unless there are some surprises still waiting for us this year we have more or less seen the season around now, and have a good idea what to expect for next year. Our first goal is identification and distribution, but we are already moving on to behavior, which is so varied and imaginative, if you can say that about an animal with a brain the size of a grain of dust. An ultimate goal is to make a sort of illustrated field guide to Arkansas spiders, especially those found on Crowley's Ridge, that anomalous line of hills that rises out of the flat Mississippi Delta here in northeast Arkansas.

For now, here is our first draft (our summer's work), for anyone who might be interested. This will be a perpetual work in progress. We will boldly add new species as we find them, and quietly erase errors as we discover them or they are pointed out to us. What we have are four Picasa Web albums, in which the arrangement of species more or less follows the arrangement in Bradley, which is one of convenience,  since there is no agreed-upon evolutionary order.

The first album contains the Mygalomorphs, large long-lived "primitive" spiders like tarantulas; and Orb-shaped-Web Builders, very highly evolved species like the large garden spiders).

click here

The second album contains the Wolf Spiders, a large group of often striped spiders that don't make snare-webs, but run along the ground, catching their prey by pursuit or ambush. They are quite numerous, and many are nocturnal. If you go out at night with a headlamp on, you will see their eyes by the dozens shining back at you; and Fishing Spiders, species that often live on or even under water, and sometimes catch tadpoles and small fish.

click here

The third album contains the Jumping Spiders, another large group of often brightly colored spiders that don't spin snare-webs, but stalk their prey like cats until they are close enough to spring on them; and the Crab Spiders, some of which climb to flowers then change their color to match the flower's, so they can hide on it to ambush insects that come for nectar.

click here

The fourth album contains "all the rest," a  motley of ground hunters and primitive hackle-web weavers, such as the Feather-legged Spiders, Black Widows, Brown Recluses, and the strange Spitting Spiders.

click here

I shouldn't be too cavalier about our ability now to identify our local spiders. There are still some, especially from my favorite group, the Wolf Spiders, that we have a lot of trouble with. I have pictures that I change the name on almost every time I look at them. But that's great, that's the fun. In fact there are species that cannot be identified without dissection, but that's okay too. I want this to be a pictorial guide, so for now, I just want to get as close as I can visually.

Here's a footnote: Because we are concentrating so hard on finding spiders, we are seeing for the first time a number of species that have always been right in front of us.  We are also observing behavior we would never have dreamed of. For example, I had always assumed that spiders require fresh live food that they catch themselves. But last night (11/5/13) when I went out with my headlamp to see if any spiders would be out in 61 degree temperature (in fact, there were dozens of eyes glinting back at me) I came just inside my garage where I had noticed two or three days before a dead paper wasp lying on the concrete, and there was a funnel-web spider scavenging the corpse. I was amazed. In fact spiders have done something to amaze me almost every day this year. That's my idea of retirement, miles ahead of daytime TV!