Trail Photos: Flag Ponds Nature Park North and South Ridge Trails

Friday was my day to check the salamander traps at Flag Ponds.  (Citizen science for the win!)  But, I arrived to discover that they’d already been checked by a teacher and school group.  (Educating kids about nature for the championship!)

So, what’s a woman with a free hour to do on a mild autumn day with cerulean skies and golden leaves?  Hit the trails, of course!

The best shots from the South Ridge and North Ridge trails on this particular day were of weaving ladies and fun-guys.  (Fungi!  Get it?!  Nerdy science puns rule.)

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A tiny “trail miracle” – I stopped for no reason and found myself eye-level with and six inches from this female Marbled Orb Weaver (Araneus marmoreus), busy making threads of sticky silk to complete the spiral of her orb web. 

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Efficient and capable from the underside, but absolutely stunning from the topside!  Her abdomen was sunflower yellow marbled with chocolate brown, contrasting nicely with her eight flame red, cream, and black legs.  Don’t let the bright colors scare you, though – this lady is completely harmless.  She was too busy with her creation to notice me, but if I’d scared her, she likely would have dropped to the ground or run to hide.

Watching the Marbled Orb weaver was mesmerizing.  She used one of her back legs to stretch the silk out from her spinnerets as she crawled to the next radial strand, then tucked her abdomen under to secure the thread to the radial strand with a dot of spider glue.  Her movements were efficient and economical, looking more like Monday office work than Saturday night fever.  I captured two short videos of her skills; check them out in the video links below.

Marbled Orb Weaver 11-3-17 1

Marbled Orb Weaver 11-3-17 2

Now, on to the fun-guys.

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After some light research in my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, I have tentatively identified these as Pear-Shaped Puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme).  Apparently they’re among the “choice” finds for expert mushroom hunters in terms of edibility.  Being a novice mushroom hunter, however, I’m smart enough to not put any wild fungus in my mouth; there are too many look-alikes that turn a great meal into a deadly dish.

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My Audubon guide (and some image searches on Google) lead me to believe that these convoluted, jelly-like masses are a fungus known as Pale Jelly Roll (Exidia alba).  The Exidia fungi are found on deciduous trees such as oak, willow, and alder.  How I wish I’d stayed to check what kind of tree this log had been!

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Thinking about how many times I say “I wish I’d taken the time to . . .” about something on the trail.  The trouble with hiking is that I’m always trying to make it double as a workout, so I go too fast.  (My idea of heaven necessarily includes an eternity to study nature in minute detail, unnoticed by all of the earthbound fauna.)  This particular section of the North Ridge trail definitely burns the calories, though.  Forty-five-ish steps climb from the bottom of the ridge to the top.  It’s.  No.  Joke.

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Sure, I stopped half way up the steps just for the awesome view of the marsh and the Chesapeake Bay beyond.  Not because I was dying or anything.

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I just love the curving, twisting contortions of the wood grain in this decaying log.  The beginnings of a moss colony – green flecks at center left – and the Clinker Polypore fungus (Inonotus obliquus) – black swaths that look like charred wood – highlight the complex landscape of decay.

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One of my all time favorite trail views.  This flat portion of the North Ridge trail is my dream of a magical woodland.  I sense surprises hiding all around, but it feels as safe and friendly as my own bed.  It will be a feast of sun rays in winter.

Ninja Hiking with Charlotte

Today I met every orb-weaving spider on the trails at Flag Ponds Nature Park.

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This two foot diameter web was practically invisible until I was right next to it!  Luckily it was set high and off to the right side of the trail, so I was able to duck under it’s attachment strands.

I call all spiders Charlotte.  It reminds me of Charlotte’s Web and makes me feel friendlier to our little eight-legged allies.

To most of the Charlottes I was exceedingly polite, making no more indent in their day than that of a short, thick, oddly mobile tree.  (This is what I think humans look like to spiders.)

A few, however, I rudely insulted by walking face first into their web.

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Most of the Charlottes I met today looked like this.  This is a member of the Verrucosa genus of spiders. Commonly called “Arrowhead” spiders, they are thoroughly harmless and easily identifiable by the big, white triangle-shaped abdomen.

If you’ve not had the pleasure of getting web on your face, it’s a bucket list activity.  You’ll never know if you could have been a ninja until you see what martial arts your body produces in response to walking through a web.

I could’ve been a ninja.   (Click for hilarious spider ninja video compilation.)

My husband could’ve been the shogun.  FYI: it’s not productive to the marital relationship to double over laughing and nearly wet oneself when one’s husband displays his spider-induced ninja skills on the trail.  Maybe that’s why my hubby hasn’t been hiking with me in a while. . .

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I can’t be sure of this Charlotte’s species, because she skittered off right after this shot.  I can, however, be relatively sure she’s a she – male spiders don’t spend much time in their webs, they’re usually wandering hunters and maters.

I’ve come to the level of nature appreciation where I don’t mind going first as we hike, though, because my training (Master Naturalist in two states, thank you very much) has nearly eliminated my fear of these web encounters.  I wrote a lot about spiders and their webs in an earlier post, Weaver’s World.  But here are the basics you need to know so that you don’t have a ninja-style web freak out, either:

  • North American orb weavers are tiny (usually smaller than a nickel, legs included) and generally regarded as totally harmless.  Black widows and brown recluses DO NOT make orb webs.
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Meet Charlotte, the Micrathena.  Spiders in the genus Micrathena have really cool, spiked, triangular bodies.  They look like the devil’s own minions, but are just as harmless as all of the other North American orb weavers.

  • The vast majority of spiders build their webs next to the trail, not over it.  Those that do build their web on the trail usually center the web to one side or the other.  A web destroyed by human, deer, or bird walking in the middle of the trail is just more work for the spider to have to rebuild.
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These two trees stood about 20 feet apart on the left side of the trail.  A tiny orb weaver managed to build her web by attaching long strands of silks to both trees.  

  • When you hit web, you’re usually running into the long silk threads that the spider uses to attach the web to a nearby tree.  These threads are only the tiniest bit sticky, and you can easily (and calmly) pluck them off of yourself and rub your fingers together to release the strand.
  • When its web is disturbed by something large, the spider will flee, usually by quickly crawling up and away from the disturbance (you) to hide in nearby foliage.  If the spider chooses the wrong direction, it’s not coming to get you, it just doesn’t recognize that you’re not a slow, thick, oddly mobile tree.  Drop the strand and/or your whole hand to the ground and the spider will happily skedaddle.
  • By flailing your arms and legs in a “coordinated” ninja-style attack, you are more likely to destroy the center of the web and accidentally scoop up the spider.  Do you want the spider on you?  If not, Daniel-san (note the classic 80s movie reference), when you walk into a web follow these steps:
  1.  Do NOT panic.  (Classic 80s fiction reference.)
  2.  Back up a few steps.  The less sticky attachment strands will likely stretch a little (they’re so stretchy!) and then pop off of you, no harm done.
  3.  If you can see the strands, you can duck under them or grasp a strand with your finger, thus detaching the main orb web, and then move the entire web to the side.

Remember, we love spiders – our Charlottes eat mosquitos and flies and all sorts of other insect pests!

If you still want to be a ninja, that’s cool, just keep it off the trails, eh?

 

Bonus:  There are about 4,000 species of spiders in North America.  Of those, only two are considered potentially harmful.  Learn more about Maryland’s spiders here.

 

Abigail Birch Guest Post: Spiders – the Creepy Crawlies of the Heroes

Dear readers,

I know many of you probably have Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders. But these eight legged guy (and girls) aren’t what you think. What do you hate worse:spiders or MOSQUITOES?! If I were you I would say mosquitoes. Well fun fact: Spiders eat mosquitoes!! YAYYYYY! I know what most of you are thinking”but still spiders are scary and venomous ” Most spiders don’t have venom powerful enough to hurt humans.2 venomous spiders live in this part of the USA,the black widow and the brown recluse. i get it they’re not the best to look at face to face,but if you get to know them I think you’ll get along quite nicely. so don’t kill spiders just for fun, don’t be a hater. ( Just don’t let them crawl in your pants;trust me there are many ways spiders are great but crawling crawling on you isn’t one of them.)

Bye, Abbey

Weavers’ World

Though I was sad to send my daughter back to school earlier this month, I was looking forward to one thing:  walking her to the bus stop in the morning and scoping out the spider webs in my garden.

This shot was taken looking down into a patch of daylily leaves.  Look at all of those webs!  Whoever said you're never more than six feet away from a spider wildly underestimated the number of spiders in the world!

This shot was taken looking down into a patch of daylily leaves growing next to my front walk. Look at all of those webs! Whoever said you’re never more than six feet away from a spider wildly underestimated the number of spiders in the world!

The early morning dew glistens on all of the webs and makes them stand out.  They are everywhere.  Webs as small as your palm or wider than a basketball, all made by spiders so tiny that you could fit several on your thumbnail.

This beautiful orb web was made by that tiny glint of green in the center, an orchard spider.  There are many species of orchard spider which share the genus Leucauge.  It's pronounced LOO-COW-GEE (the last G is hard) and is fun to say!

This beautiful orb web was made by that tiny glint of teal green in the center, an orchard spider. There are many species of orchard spider which share the genus Leucauge. It’s pronounced LOO-COW-GEE (the last G is hard) and is fun to say!

My childhood fear of spiders was replaced long ago by fascination.  (No, Dad, I’m not too grown to remember the time I nearly gave you a heart attack by screaming at the top of my lungs in the bathtub.  Still not my fault.  I was seven and naked and the spider jumped at my face.)

One of the very best children's books ever written, Charlotte's Web is a must have!  The author, E.B. White, also wrote wonderful adult non-fiction about nature that I could read over and over.

One of the very best children’s books ever written, Charlotte’s Web is a must have! The author, E.B. White, also wrote wonderful adult non-fiction about nature that I could read over and over.

The more you know about spiders, the more friendly they seem.  In my house, we name any spider we find “Charlotte” to remind us of that wonderful arachnid that saved dear Wilbur the pig with her fabulous web writing.  We’re up to Charlotte XVI, I think, and we have loved them all.

Teaching this summer’s field camps, I got to spend some time with the graduate students at Virginia Tech who are studying the amazing characteristics of spider silk, learning along with the campers about our local orb weavers.   Again, the more I learned, the more awe I felt for these amazing little creatures.  Here are the highlights:

There are four main types of webs we see around here:  cob webs (I call them  messy webs), sheet webs, bowl and doily webs, and orb webs.

These are bowl and doily webs in one of my small holly trees.  It's easy to see how they get their name; there's a bowl shaped web on top, with a flat doily-like web underneath.  Bowl and doily spiders in my garden are tiny (less than half of my pinky nail), black, and have little white marks around the outside of their abdomen.

These are bowl and doily webs in one of my small holly trees. It’s easy to see how they get their name; there’s a bowl shaped web on top, with a flat doily-like web underneath. Bowl and doily spiders in my garden are tiny (less than half of my pinky nail), black, and have little white marks around the outside of their abdomen.

Tucked deep in the foliage and low to the ground I found this excellent example of a sheet (or funnel) web.  This is an averag-sized one; I've seen them covering bushes as large as four feet high, wide and deep.  The weaver of the web sits inside the funnel, waiting for lunch to announce its arrival by vibrating the strands of the web upon impact.

Tucked deep in the foliage and low to the ground I found this excellent example of a sheet (or funnel) web. This is an average-sized one, but I’ve seen them covering bushes as large as four feet high, wide and deep. The weaver of the web sits inside the funnel, waiting for lunch to announce its arrival by vibrating the strands of the web upon impact.

None of the orb weaving spiders here are dangerous. No, really!  They’re not!

Meet Micrathena.  With that large, spiky abdomen, she's enough to scare off even the toughest nature explorers.  Her cousins also come in devil-red and caution-yellow.  Yikes!  But she's completely, thoroughly harmless.  This picture is a bit fuzzy because I was trying to catch the shot while she was trying to get far away from me, and fast.

Meet Micrathena. With that large, spiky abdomen, this little orb weaver is enough to scare off even the toughest nature explorers. Her cousins also come in devil-red and caution-yellow. Yikes! But she’s completely, thoroughly harmless. This picture is a bit fuzzy because I was trying to catch the shot while she was trying to get far away from me, and fast.

The orb weaving spiders are all fairly small, but if you notice them at all, they’re usually female.  The males are tiny.  Girl Power!

Sitting in the center of her web, legs held out in a large X formation, sits the lovely Argiope, also known as a garden spider or writing spider. The extra weaving running vertically at the center of her web is for stability, scientists tell us, but I often wonder if an Argiope might have been the inspiration for Charlotte.

Sitting in the center of her web, legs held out in a large X formation, sits the lovely Argiope, also known as a garden spider or writing spider. The extra weaving running vertically at the center of her web is for stability, scientists tell us, but I often wonder if an Argiope might have been the inspiration for Charlotte.  This is a medium sized Argiope; check out a bib mama Argiope at the end of this post.

The long threads that anchor a web aren’t sticky, only the spiral threads that make up the circular portion of the web are.

The threads that radiate from the center form the frame for the sticky  spiral threads of the orb.  The long threads at the outside anchor the web to surrounding plants.  Neither of these are sticky.  The spider only deposits the sticky glycoprotein glue drops on the spiral threads.

The threads that radiate from the center form the frame for the sticky spiral threads of the orb. The long threads at the outside anchor the web to surrounding plants. Neither of these are sticky. The spider only deposits the sticky glycoprotein glue drops on the spiral threads.

If you walk slowly through the forest, you’re much less likely to run face first into a web.  If you do run into a web, though, you can be sure that the spider has run for cover and is not going to bite you in retaliation.  (Still, if when you walk into a web you feel the irresistible urge to immediately transform into a spider-fighting ninja, please come hiking with me; I’ll make you go first and it will be hilarious!)

This stunning web sat just about at eye-height in a young dogwood tree in my backyard.  I would have hated to destroy such fine work.  Then again, spiders rebuild and/or repair their webs daily, so the little lady that made this would have caught her next meal with no trouble, regardless.

This stunning web sat just about at eye-height in a young dogwood tree in my backyard. I would have hated to accidentally destroy such fine work. Then again, spiders rebuild and/or repair their webs daily, so the little lady that made this would have caught her next meal with no trouble, regardless.  Note the messy cob web behind this orb web – spiders have no trouble living next to one another and you’ll often find groups of webs situated close together.

If you’d like to see a spiderweb more clearly and don’t have the morning dew to help, fill a used sock with corn starch, tie off the end, and pat the sock softly to release fine powder that you can gently blow all over the web.  This works like a charm.  A flashlight also helps for low-light situations and under dense forest canopy.

Okay, here's the big mama Argiope I promised.  You can see she's protecting the egg sack she recently made.  She's a little larger than a half dollar, legs included.  She was gorgeous!

Okay, here’s the big mama Argiope I promised. I photographed her just a few days ago on a sunny afternoon walk.  She’s snacking on a cabbage white butterfly. She’s a little larger than a half dollar, legs included. She was gorgeous!  Don’t be startled if you happen upon a large Argiope in your own garden – they’re incredibly good to have around to eat up insect pests.

One last fun fact/nerd joke for the grown ups (children, avert your delicate eyes):

How do you know if a female spider doesn’t like a male suitor who’s come calling?

She eats him.

How do you know if she does like him?

She mates with him . . . and then eats him.

See?  These creatures are fascinating!

Not-So-Dismal Falls

About an hour west of Blacksburg in the Jefferson National Forest in Giles County, the Falls of Dismal Creek make the perfect place to splash and picnic.

I was lucky enough to get to spend the afternoon there on Wednesday, with 10 kiddos participating in SEEDS Field Camp.

The Falls of Dismal trail is a scramble downhill; just a tenth of a mile brings you from the roadside parking to the creek.  There are plenty of semi-dry boulders to sit on and creek access is easy as long as you and your kiddos are careful of slippery spots.

The falls are about 15 feet high, made of many stepped ledges of bedrock.  The falls can be climbed even by the elementary school set (with an adult) if the water flow is low.  Several campers made it to the top with my camp co-teacher helping them along the way.

Reaching the top is far from the highlight of a visit, though, as there are fish, crawfish, and salamanders to be caught, mushrooms to be found, butterflies to be watched, and cold water bathtub-style swimming to be enjoyed.

(Just don’t overtire yourself.  What was a downhill scramble is a short-but-painful slog on the way back up.)

Here are some pictures from our recent Dismal Falls visit:

The Falls of Dismal are just beautiful.  The "dismal" moniker comes from the settlers' pessimistic judgement of the area's rough, wild country, short growing season, and poor soils (shale bedrock).

The Falls of Dismal are just beautiful. The “dismal” moniker comes from the settlers’ pessimistic judgement of the area’s rough, wild country, short growing season, and poor soils (shale bedrock).

This is the view downstream from the falls.  Dismal Creek runs clear and cold.  The water appears brown because the underlying rocks are brown.  The creek is not muddy or cloudy.  Well, at least not unless you have 10 kids playing in it!  (And even then, there's little silt to kick up.)

This is the view downstream from the falls. Dismal Creek runs clear and cold. The water appears brown because the underlying rocks are brown. The creek is not muddy or cloudy. Well, at least not unless you have 10 kids playing in it! (And even then, there’s little silt to kick up.)

This small creek fish is a blacknose dace (Rhynicthus atratulis) that was captured with a small, rectangular neck of the variety usually used in fishtanks.

This small creek fish is a blacknose dace (Rhynicthus atratulus) that was captured with a small, rectangular net of the variety usually used in fish tanks.  It is swimming in our collection basin, a rectangular bucket of the variety usually seen containing dirty dishes.

This is a dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) also captured with a small fish net.  It is eager to crawl out of the observation basin.  The basins we use for observation are always kept in shade and at the temperature of the stream to maintain the high dissolved oxygen levels in the water (so as not to stress out the stream creatures more than necessary).  Still, freedom is better.

This is a dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) also captured with a small fish net. It is eager to crawl out of the observation basin. The basins we use for observation are always kept in shade and at the temperature of the stream to maintain the high dissolved oxygen levels in the water (so as not to stress out the stream creatures more than necessary). Still, freedom is better.

We weren't the only ones doing some fishing in the creek!  This is a fishing spider (Dolomedes spp.) staking out a good crack between rocks.  About as big as my hand, fishing spiders are sometimes described as "big, not bad".  Found near water, they prey on aquatic insects, tiny minnows (the kind seen in the observation bucket with the salamander) and other minuscule stream dwellers.  They don't frighten me, but I'm not dumb enough to poke them, either.

We weren’t the only ones doing some fishing in the creek! This is a fishing spider (Dolomedes spp.) staking out a good crack between rocks. About as big as my hand, fishing spiders are sometimes described as “big, not bad”. Found near water, they prey on aquatic insects, tiny minnows (the kind seen in the observation bucket with the salamander) and other minuscule stream dwellers. They don’t frighten me, but I’m not dumb enough to poke them, either.