Sunday, March 18, 2012

They're watching

Yesterday was an absolutely delightful early spring day. Almost summery, really, with temperatures hitting 75 degrees in the southernmost reaches of Ohio. And that's where I went, hopping in the car at Oh-dark-30 and making the two hour drive to Adams and Scioto counties. These two counties harbor some of the greatest botanical diversity to be found north of the Ohio River, and with the unnaturally balmy weather of late, plants have been in eruption mode.

I spent about nine hours in the field, and located scores of wildflowers, including some of our rarest species. My camera's clicker was busy recording nearly 1,000 images, some of which were keepers. I'll share some of those later.

It seems that most of my field work anymore is in the company of others, which I greatly enjoy. I learn a lot from being with people who know more than I do, and getting another's perspective is always enriching. But I still love solo days, such as yesterday. Without any sort of distraction, I find my senses are heightened and I tend to notice lots of things that I might otherwise miss. When I'm by myself, I tend to move very quietly and the easing through the forest without making sound tends to allow one to better sneak up on the wildlife.

Spot the mammal. It's right there, dead center, staring bullets at the camera. As always, you can click the photo to enlarge it and better see detail.

While working a steep slope photographing the endangered goldenstar lily, Erythronium rostratum, I noticed a furtive movement out of the corner of my eye. Scanning the scene, I saw this bright-eyed eastern chipmunk, Tamias striatus, still as stone and peering though a forking branch from behind a rock.

Mammals such as chipmunks and squirrels habituate well to suburbia, and become backyard extroverts. They adapt to the presence of people, and most of their natural predators are absent from the yardscape. In much wilder landscapes, such animals are often not nearly so confiding.

At one point, while picking my way along a razorback ridge carpeted in oak and hickory, I noticed the blur of some large critter vanishing into the leaf litter. It was just a fleeting glimpse, and whatever it was was large enough that I wondered if it might be one of the smaller species of shrew.

It wasn't. Carefully lifting the leaf that I though the animal vanished under revealed a telltale burrow about as big around as your thumb. It's right there, blending well with last year's litter of leaves, square in the center of the photo. Its occupant is right at the entrance, too.

The flashing blur that I had seen turned out to be one of the giant burrow-dwelling species of wolf spider, perhaps one in the genus Hogna. As I peered into the depths of the burrow, I saw her legs slowly move into sight as she crept back to the entrance. A slight twitch by your narrator sent her scrambling back to the depths.

So, I did what any decent spider enthusiast would do - I prostrated myself on the forest floor, camera at the ready, and hoped she might come out. Still and patient as I was - I lay in the leaves for a good twenty minutes - she would only come as far as the burrow's entrance, as seen in the photo. Any slight camera-adjusting move by me sent her instantly down the tube. I really wanted a good look, and decent photos, in order to learn her identity.

Senora Wolf Spider would not be intimidated by smaller potential victims passing by her burrow. It's probably good that insects don't thought-process in the way we do. One can only imagine the horror that would register, albeit briefly, in the unfortunate bug's mind that bumbled into the vicinity of the spider's lair. In an incomprehensible blast of speed, the spider would rocket from the burrow, seize its victim, and bite it. Venom injected via a pair of impressive fangs would quickly incapacitate the prey, which would then be tugged underground where its soft innards would be sucked dry.


Sharkbytes (TM) said...

You are very patient to wait 20 minutes! Not sure I would have.

Jim McCormac said...

I was very curious as to the ID of the giant wolf spider in this blog, so I sent off a description and the photo to spider expert Dr. Richard Bradley. His interesting response follows:


Well you are correct about Geolycosa being a sand-burrower. This is a different wolf spider. It looks to me to be Hogna aspersa. It is quite a bit larger than any Geolycosa in Ohio and commonly an inhabitant of mature forests. Most folks never see them, but once in a while they are noticed when on the surface. We don't have that many records in the database (Adams, Hocking, Tuscarawas, Vinton counties). I'm sure that they are widespread in the unglaciated part of the state all the way from the extreme NE down to Cincinnati. It seems they just escape detection by being homebodies and out of their burrows mostly at night. Similar large burrowing wolf spiders in forests sometimes come out in spring to warm up in the sunflecks in a variety of places. I remember one species well that did this often near Sydney Australia on our spider study plots there.

The hint of a pattern on the legs and that obvious light colored band down the midline (between the eyes) are the keys to my guess of the ID for this gal.