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

A Walk in the Ellett Valley Recreational Area

I needed a little exercise and couldn’t bring myself to walk the sunny trails of our neighborhood – it’s just too hot outside.  Nor could I bear to sweat in place for an hour in the black and grey, aggressively air conditioned neighborhood gym.

The answer presented itself in the Ellett Valley Recreational Area.  A shady, one mile loop trail only 10 minutes away from home?  Yes, please!

The rays of a hot September sun filter through a canopy of green and throw shifting spotlights on the forest floor.

The rays of a hot September sun filter through a canopy of green and throw shifting spotlights on the forest floor.

I figured I’d have time to do two laps.  Obviously I had momentarily forgotten that my hiking speed is permanently set to 30 seconds (maximum) of fast walking followed by complete stop for a minute (minimum) to take a picture/study a plant/listen to birds/try to find the animal that just scurried through my peripheral vision.

An hour later I had made one lap of the loop trail (plus two tenths for round-trip leg to the parking lot, of course, give me some credit).  Along the way, I stopped for . . .

Spiderweb Karma

I should have known when I wrote that snarky comment about spider web ninjas in my Weavers’ World post that it would come back to bite me in the butt.  Or, rather, to smack me in the face, as the many, many spiderwebs across this trail did.

Even my slow pace wasn’t enough to keep me looking ahead properly to avoid running into and destroying webs.  However, I did make two interesting observations:

  1. Almost all of the webs across this trail were inhabited by young micrathena spiders.  Perhaps the young haven’t yet learned that when you build your web across the trail, big, clumsy humans will just wreck it over and over again.  Live and learn, little spiders.
  2. Though I must have walked through at least a dozen webs, and micrathenas tend to sit in the middle of their webs (and once I walked through and could see that the micrathena was trapped on my face by her web)  the little spiders fled each and every time and I didn’t get bitten once.  To a spider the size of half your pinkie nail, you are basically a moving tree.  No point in biting a tree – it’s not a threat, it’s a force of nature.

Informational Signs

One of the things that really impressed me was that this is more than a trail – the interpretive signs alone make it a true learning experience.  The signs are really well done, too; easy enough for a grade-schooler to read, but with information interesting to all ages and graphics that make it easy to understand.

I tip my sun hat to the creator of this interpretive sign.  It's placed near some huge outcrops of stone that you can't help but examine more closely after you've read this sign.

I tip my hiking hat to the creator of this interpretive sign. It’s placed near some huge outcrops of stone that you can’t help but examine more closely after you’ve read this sign.

Virginia Creeper’s Red Leaves

Fall really is on its way.

Just two red leaves on the trail this day.  In a week or two the trail will be covered with colored leaf confetti.

Just two red leaves on the trail this day. In a week or two the trail will be covered with colored leaf confetti.

One of the first plants to turn is Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), which goes from green to stunning scarlet seemingly in the blink of an eye.  Suddenly, as you look up in the woods, you see trees festooned with red streamers that put party decorations to shame.  That’s Virginia creeper.

I caught this tiny Virginia creeper while it was changing.  I bet by the next day all five leaves were scarlet.

This little Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) got caught changing!  I bet by the next day all five leaves were scarlet.

Look before you touch, though; poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) also turns red, so remember “leaves of three, let it be”.  Virginia creeper’s leaves are in groups of five.  (It also has blue/black berries where poison ivy’s tiny berries are white.

Holy Mackerel, a Salamander!

My daughter is the Queen of Salamanders.  She can find them anywhere.  I’m merely the fool in her court . . . but even a fool can get lucky!  An ephemeral mountain stream crosses the trail and it was mostly dry when I visited – down to wet soil without any mud puddles even.  There was one rock that looked easy to turn over, and it was just barely off the trail, and salamanders need somewhere cool and wet to hide (they breathe through their wet skin), so I decided to give it a shot.  Success!!

I was so overjoyed to find an actual salamander under the one stone I turned over that I think I held my breath the whole time.  This northern two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata) runs well, but held perfectly still for the half-minute I had the rock lifted.  Nowhere wet to run to, I suppose.

I was so overjoyed to find an actual salamander under the one stone I turned over that I think I held my breath the whole time. This northern two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata) runs well, but held perfectly still for the half-minute I had the rock lifted. Nowhere wet to run to, perhaps.

I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a bright yellow northern two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata) curled up under that rock!  He held very still, which could have been a technique to avoid the giant predator who just lifted his precious rock, or it could have been because they’re only active on nights and wet days.  I held the rock up just long enough to get a picture of my little citrine treasure and then put it ever so gingerly back down.  Good luck till it rains again, little guy.

Holey Trees

A hole in a tree is habitat for some little body, guaranteed.

Woodpeckers have made good work of this tree!  Dead and dying trees, called snags, provide a lot of habitat for woodland creatures and are very important to the forest ecosystem.

Woodpeckers have made good work of this tree! Dead and dying trees, called snags, provide a lot of habitat for woodland creatures and are very important to the forest ecosystem.

Some holes are relatively dry, made high on the trunk by woodpeckers drilling through bark to get at bugs.

I used a flash to get a better image of the inside of the rotted-out knot at the base of this tree.  I didn't see anything moving inside, but I suspect that's because fairies become invisible when humans are around.

I used a flash to get a better image of the inside of the rotted-out knot at the base of this tree. I didn’t see anything moving inside, but I suspect that’s because fairies become invisible when humans are around.

Others are low, a rotted out spot where a diseased branch or trunk used to be.  Either way, check them out and you’ll be happily surprised at all of the life inside.

Where two strong trunks diverged at the base of a tree, time, water, fungus and bacteria made a week spot home.  It's now a hole big enough to fit an adult hand.  It's half full of water, and several invertebrates were taking advantage of the moisture.  At the upper left corner of the hole, you can see the large millipede that was running for cover when my flash lit.

Where two strong trunks diverged at the base of a tree, time, water, fungus and bacteria made a week spot home. It’s now a hole big enough to fit an adult hand. It’s half full of water, and several invertebrates were taking advantage of the moisture. At the upper left corner of the hole, you can just barely see the large millipede that was running for cover when my flash lit.

Additional Awesomeness

There are a thousand treasures, small and large, to be found on any trail.  That’s why it takes me so long to walk them – it’s hard to be a treasure hunter disguised as an exerciser.   (Exercist?)

The spicebush trees (Lindera benzoin) that bring us the first (tiny, lemon yellow ) blossoms of spring now sport crimson berries.  Some people eat the berries, but I leave them as good wild food for songbirds.  All parts of this bush smell deliciously spicy.

The spicebush trees (Lindera benzoin) that bring us the first (tiny, lemon yellow ) blossoms of spring now sport crimson berries. Some people eat the berries, but I leave them as good wild food for songbirds. All parts of this bush smell deliciously spicy.

This small sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is one of my favorite trees because of its varied leaf shapes.  While identification books say only that the leaves have one to three lobes, I prefer to remember them as "simple leaf", "mitten", and "trident" shaped.  You can see all three on this one specimen!

This small sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is one of my favorite trees because of its varied leaf shapes. While identification books (boringly) describe the leaves as having one to three lobes, I prefer to remember them as “simple leaf”, “mitten”, and “trident” shaped. You can see all three on this one specimen!

Moss identification is no joke.  Mosses make up an entire class of life on earth.  This one might be haircap moss (Polytrichum juniperum), but I need to study moss much, much more to know for sure.  In the meantime, it reminds me of a friendly, Muppet monster.  Muppet moss.

Moss identification is no joke. Mosses make up an entire class of life on earth. This one might be haircap moss (Polytrichum juniperum), but I need to study moss much, much more to know for sure. In the meantime, it reminds me of a friendly, Muppet monster. Therefore, I’ll call it Muppet moss.

One last shot:  I had to stop the car on the short gravel drive to the main road.  This cluster of wildflowers was I wild bouquet waiting to be captured.  The yellow is goldenrod (Solidago spp.), the orange is jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), the dark blue is great lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), the white is boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), and the little periwinkle star at the bottom center is  one lone blossom of chicory (Chicorium intybus).  All are in the aster family except the jewelweed.  It's aster time!

One last shot: I had to stop the car on the short gravel drive to the main road. This cluster of wildflowers was I wild bouquet waiting to be captured. The yellow is goldenrod (Solidago spp.), the orange is jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), the dark blue at the base of the goldenrod is great lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), the white is boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), and the little periwinkle star at the bottom center is one lone blossom of chicory (Chicorium intybus). All are in the aster family except the jewelweed.

Couldn't resist a close up on the chicory.

Couldn’t resist a close up on the chicory.