Critter Condo

Be as useful as a tree! Give life to others; be shelter to everyone; grant fruits to all! Be good like a tree!

~Mehmet Murat Ildan

Just beyond our deer fence is a huge old Tulip Poplar with a split at the base forming a hollow that stretches up 20 feet or so. This is the second largest tree on our property behind a giant old White Oak on the south slope across the creek bed. The Tulip Poplar is on our north slope where that species is the dominant tree. In spring, the large fragrant flowers provide an important nectar source for many types of pollinators. In autumn, the seeds are eaten by numerous bird species, especially the Purple Finches that fly south most winters from their boreal forest summer range. And the leaves are the primary food source for caterpillars of our most abundant butterfly, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (along with many other species like the magnificent Tuliptree Silk Moth). But this particular tree is important in another way – the hollows provide shelter and a forest touchstone for a variety of critters.

A giant Tulip Poplar on our property is home to a number of our wildlife neighbors (click photos to enlarge)

A large split at the base provides access to hollow spaces within this tree. But the Raccoons that use itr as a den tree climb higher and squeeze through a relatively small hole about 30 feet up the trunk

Unlike Raccoons at some of my favorite wildlife refuges, I rarely see ours sleeping out on limbs of this tree during the daytime. The one exception was many years ago when I spotted a young Raccoon out on one of the large outstretched arms of this forest giant.

-A young Raccoon that was sleeping out on a limb one day several years ago checks me out when I went out into the yard for a photograph. When I went back inside, it curled back up and went back to sleep.

Most of my knowledge of the importance of this tree to the woodland wildlife comes from a trail camera that has been watching it off and on for a couple of years. The tree has been home to a variety of wildlife including multiple generations of Raccoons, Eastern Gray Squirrels, and Southern Flying Squirrels. And, perhaps because of the comings and going of its permanent residents, it is also visited by many other forest dwellers. The camera has recorded several species stopping by in hopes of a meal, a sniff to see who has been there recently, or perhaps just to pay respect to this towering monarch of the woods. Visitors have included White-tailed Deer, a Gray Fox, many Virginia Opossums, a Cooper’s Hawk, and, unfortunately, my neighbor’s outdoor cats. The Ground Hog that wandered through our property for several days last year also sought shelter in its hollow base between raids on our garden while we were out of town.

Currently, there is a family of four Raccoons, a bunch of squirrels, and at least one Southern Flying Squirrel that call that tree home. Here are a few highlights of recent trail camera captures.

— A Virginia Opossum that frequents the base of this tree takes a selfie at the trail camera

— A squirrel spent 30 minutes one day recently carrying leaves up into the hollow for a suitable drey (a nest)

— The Tulip Poplar seems to be very “poplar” with the local squirrels (and there are too many…where are the hawks?)

— A different type of squirrel, a very active Southern Flying Squirrel, takes over at night (although I do have a clip of an Eastern Gray Squirrel out at 3:20 a.m.!)

— The Raccoons usually use the leaning cedar snag as a ladder to their den, but occasionally climb the tree trunk. This was one night recently when it briefly snowed. Note the third raccoon appearing in the lower left at the end of the clip.

Large trees that have broken limbs, knot holes, large cracks or hollow trunks are incredibly important to a forest and its creatures. They provide food, shelter, and a place to rear young and can be a focal point of any woodland tract. I hope this one continues to be the preeminent poplar in our woods for many years to come.

A New Year, and New Happenings in the Woods

Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will.

~Vernon Howard

The first days of the new year have brought a few more surprises and lessons from the trail cameras scattered in our woods. Several cameras have remained in one spot for many months because they tend to record lots of activity due to their location along a game trail or creek bed. But, based on some things I have seen over time, I decided to re-position a couple of them and, in one case, slightly alter the landscape around it. Here are some highlights from the first few days (and nights) of 2023…

–The first time I saw this buck on a trail camera, I thought it had broken one antler. But in this closer view, i am now thinking it is just a small spike that formed (the other one has three points and is much longer). Perhaps an injury during antler development caused this?

–A small pool formed in our wet weather creek after a recent heavy rain. Lots of critters have visited, especially the Raccoons and a few White-tailed Deer.

— The family of Raccoons has a regular path through our woods almost every night, rooting around in the leaves as they go.

— The same camera that caught the Raccoons used to be mounted a few feet off the ground on a tree trunk. I decided to move it down near the ground to see what might look different. My first capture was this Eastern Screech Owl (who has been seen on this camera before). I think it may have caught something and gulped a bite or two.

— The owl likes to land on a piece of log sticking up in front of the camera. The problem is it is seems to be a little too close to the camera for a proper focus.

— I decided to replace the close log perch that the owl (and other critters like squirrels and chipmunks) likes to use with a small mossy log that I found nearby. The owl immediately took to it the next night, but appears to be doing some trim work to make it more to its liking.

— Here’s a daylight view of the mossy log perch with a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos feeding all around it. This small mossy patch (probably a root ball from a tree that fell years ago) attracts a lot of bird visitors – the only green open ground in a sea of fallen leaves.

— The new log attracted a lot of attention from the regulars that use this woodland path.

— The young spike buck not only head butted another deer (previous video) but decided to check out the camera as well.

— I moved the camera that was several feet off the creek to a spot with a better view down the now dry creek bed. For the second time in just a few weeks, a beautiful Bobcat made an appearance in our woods It sure looks like the cat is wearing a collar but I think it is probably just a dark patch of fur, what do you think?

Wrapping It Up In Our Woods

Departure of a year welcomes so many new memories.

~Munia Khan

Our woods offer a lot of things to us – a quiet soundscape, a canopy of huge trees that help cool our landscape in summer, majestic gray forms that stretch to the winter sky, and a source of nourishment and shelter for the countless wild neighbors that share our land. I try to observe as much as I can in my wanderings in the yard and on our forest paths, but I am not out there all the time. When I am not present, I have other eyes to record the comings and goings of the wildlife. In the final two weeks of last year, the trail cameras recorded the usual activities of the herd of deer (still munching on the abundant acorns), the scampering of squirrels, the nightly forays of the Raccoon family, and even some neighbors enjoying the woods. But there were also some nice surprises. Here are a couple of new memories from the final days and nights of 2022…

— The bucks are starting to hang out together now that the rut is about over. One of these looks like it has a broken antler.

Less than a minute after the broken antler buck left the scene, another nice buck entered.

— Another nice buck enters from the left while the one keeps chowing down on acorns.

I re-positioned a different camera to a more ground level view and was rewarded with some new camera critters…

— I had seen a chipmunk at this site before so I put the camera down low and captured some close up behavior

— A male Northern Flicker lands and probes a few times for its favorite food, ants, before taking off

The Raccoon den tree had a nice clip of two of its residents during the daytime for a change…

— Two Raccoons head back to their den in the hollow of the giant Tulip Poplar early one morning last week

I am always delighted to see some of the predators that call our woods home (or at least part of their foraging area).

— A nice-looking Coyote trotted by this camera twice, going in each direction, one night

— The biggest thrill is when the cameras see a Bobcat wandering through the forest. This large one angled down off a ridge and then followed the dry creek bed.

— Another camera downstream along the creek bed caught the Bobcat a few minutes later as it trotted through. This is the fourth time my cameras have recorded one of these secretive animals in the past two years (three times at night, once during the day).

That’s a wrap for trail camera adventures for last year. Looking forward to many more glimpses into the lives of our wild neighbors. Now, if only a wandering bear would stop by…

What’s in a Name?

It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things.

~Oscar Wilde

I enjoy cold winter days as I tend to pay more attention to the little things in our woods like patterns, surprise colors, and living things that I sometimes pay less attention to in warmer months when birds, insects, and flowers seem to always demand my attention. Mosses, lichens, slime molds, and fungi suddenly take more prominence (although they really deserve our appreciation all year).

This has been a good season for fungi in our woods, and one group, in particular, really caught my eye. In November, I spotted several clusters of round white blobs on downed trees or the mulch in our yard. As Fall progressed, I began to recognize them as puffballs, so named for their spore dispersal mechanism. As they dry, they develop splits on the surface and any physical disturbance, such as raindrops, the tap of a finger, or an accidental footstep, will send clouds of brownish spores up in a tiny billow of “smoke”. I photographed one on a pathway in our yard back in November and again right before the holidays. Below are the photos and a short video of the spores being released.

A cluster of Wolf-fart Puffballs in our yard in early November (click photos to enlarge)

The same cluster in December

When I came across some drying puffballs in the woods a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t resist making puffball smoke by gently poking them with my finger. Here’s a slo-mo clip of puffballs doing their thing.

— A slow motion video of what happens when you touch ripe puffballs

Thinking I might want to post this, I decided to learn more about these unusual fungi. When I put the photo in SEEK, the all-things-natural identification app, I loved the common name that came up – Wolf-fart Puffballs. Yep, that’s what I said, wolf fart. The scientific name is Lycoperdon pyriforme. It turns out the translation of that name defines the common name – “Lyco” means wolf in Greek; “perdon” means to break wind. Together, they mean wolf fart! People understand how the word fart came to be favored given the visible puff that comes up when one is touched, but why the association of wolves? Who knows. And “pyriforme” means pear-shaped referring to the shape of some of the structures.

After laying next to a clump to get the ground level video, and having a breeze blow some of the spores my way, I thought that perhaps it is not a good idea to breathe in the spores. And with some research I discovered that I was right! If you inhale large numbers of spores you may suffer from respiratory problems. But, medical experts say it requires inhaling a large quantity of spores to show any signs of lung distress, so I suffered no ill consequences.

As always, I am amazed at the wonders just outside our door. Take some walks this winter and see what catches your eye.

Ice Art

Ice has a social life. Its changeability shapes the culture, language and stories of those who live near it!

~Robert Macfarlane

I went for a walk in our cold woods on Monday and came across some remnant ice patterns left from a combination of heavy rain followed by frigid temperatures while we were away for the holiday. Our little creek is a wet weather stream, usually only flowing after abundant rain in winter when most of the trees lining the creek bed are dormant.

Our now dry stream bed held onto some beautiful ice sculptures for a few days after the rains (click photos to enlarge)

It looked a bit odd to see ice art in a dry stream bed. There was even a perched ice shelf over a depression that had held a foot of water only a few days before. With the warming temperatures, the intricate ice patterns are retreating, leaving only memories of the ephemeral beauty they added to our woods. I’m glad I was able to enjoy them for a day at least…

Ice columns on rootlets where a small waterfall forms after heavy rains

A shelf of ice suspended almost a foot above a now dry pool

I held the phone underneath the ice shelf and took a photo up through the ice to capture the tree outlines above

Self portrait from below the ice shelf (the least glamorous photo of the day)

The Birds Are Back

Many people think of winter as bereft of birds after autumn migrations, but in fact this can be a bountiful season for bird-watchers.

~Val Cunningham

It is the time of year when I yearn to be with the birds of Pungo. There is something magical about their abundance, their flight, and their sounds. And the cast of characters that accompany them is pretty great too. So, this past week, I headed east early one morning to eventually meet up with some friends of a friend to show them some of the wonders of our coastal refuges in winter.

I arrived early on Monday and spotted some activity on the far side of the crop fields at the entrance to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Snow Geese! I drove over and pulled in slowly so as to not spook the feeding flock. To my delight, I was the only human present (a true rarity these days).

I stayed in my vehicle (most wildlife seem to prefer that behavior from us humans, but few of us abide their wishes). The sounds of a feeding flock of Snow Geese are raucous and somewhat mechanical, like a feathered combine moving through a field. The flock jumped up a time or two as they always seem to do (I am amazed at how they manage their energy budget with all this jumping up, flying in circles, landing, repeat).

— Snow Geese circle a field at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR

A wall of wings as part of the flock circles the field (click photos to enlarge)

I sat alone with the birds for a good 15 minutes before another vehicle pulled up. The driver got out and set up his tripod and camera and the birds started moving away.

A diminutive Ross’ Goose at the edge of the flock

Suddenly, a large portion of the flock blasted off, filling the sky with wing beats and a “chorus” of their nasal honks, one of the loudest sounds you encounter in winter bird watching. The flock headed back to the safety of the lake, and just like that, the scene was quiet, with only a handful of American Robins flitting across the field.

This happens often it seems, I arrive before friends, and Pungo puts on a show, and I have to say, you should’ve been here… For the next two hours, I drove the refuge roads, shared by only two other cars. Perhaps because of that, I managed a couple of nice wildlife photography opportunities of often secretive birds – a Red-shouldered Hawk and the ever-elusive Belted Kingfisher.

An adult Red-shouldered Hawk perched along one the roadside canals, searching the edges for a meal

A female (note the rust-colored breast band, males lack this) Belted Kingfisher cooperated for several quick images before darting off and scolding me with her rattling call.

My crew arrived before lunch and we set off to see what we could see. Along the edge of D-canal was a lone Tundra Swan, sitting on the bank. It had not moved all morning so is undoubtedly injured or sick (it was in the same spot the next day as well). Its fate is most likely to serve as food for the likes of the two Bald Eagles I had seen nearby at first light.

A sick or injured Tundra Swan along a roadside canal

Driving toward Marsh A to view the swans, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye and backed up to see a huge ball of gray fur on a snag in the swamp. I was very light-colored and had its head and tail hidden, so I opened my car door and got out to get a better view. A very fat Raccoon raised its head, gave me that look, and disappeared into a hollow below its perch. I apologized for disturbing its sleep and we moved on.

A sleepy Raccoon awakes from its bed atop a tree snag and crawls into a hole on the side of the tree

The afternoon was spent on “Bear Road”. I was surprised to find only one car parked at the gate, an increasingly unusual occurrence these days.

Searching the fields for bears

Another beautiful sky at Pungo

We walked past two photographers standing near the corn, waiting for bears to come out. We moved down toward the “tree tunnel” and suddenly, out pops a bear. She came out of the woods, slowly walked across the grassy road and headed into the field, a ritual she has no doubt done countless times in her life. Seconds later, two cautious cubs followed. One had an unusual injury to its left flank, something I had seen posted earlier on social media. That one moved a bit awkwardly but managed to keep up with its bigger sibling. I hope the little guy recovers

A large sow bear comes out of the woods, crosses Bear Road, and heads into the adjacent corn field for dinner, giving our group a glance before disappearing into the cornstalks

Two cubs followed their mother into the corn field. The smaller one has an injured hind quarter.

It turned out to be a very beary afternoon and when it was over, we had counted 13 bears! On the way out, I saw the Snow Geese feeding in the same field as that morning, so we pulled over and watched and listened to them for a few minutes before they blasted off, circled, and flew off toward the lake for the evening.

After a great afternoon of wildlife watching, we headed to the nearby town of Belhaven for a wonderful dinner at Spoon River. Check it out if you are in the area. The next morning, we were back at Pungo for sunrise. The developing pink sky and the soft coos (plus a few loud calls) of a few thousand Tundra Swans is a great way to start your day.

— A peaceful sunrise at Pungo with swans calling

The Snow Geese flew off the lake about 7:30 a.m. so we headed out to the front fields in hopes of witnessing the show. But, they fooled me and apparently had flown elsewhere, off the refuge, for their morning meal.

Next stop was Mattamuskeet NWR, where we saw thousands of ducks (mainly Northern Pintails) in the impoundment. It was a duck hunt day on the refuge, so a portion of Wildlife Drive across the canal was closed until early afternoon, so we spent some time in the wonderful Visitor Center and drove the open portion of the road, searching for birds. A highlight was a pair of Anhinga resting on a fallen tree in the canal. It is becoming more commonplace to spot a few of these impressive birds on this refuge every winter. The Cornell website, All About Birds, shares that the name, Anhinga, comes from the Tupi Indians in Brazil, meaning “devil bird” or “evil spirit of the woods.” But, I find them to be elegant as opposed to devilish, and very adept at hunting fish with their dagger-like bills.

One of two Anhinga we spotted perched on a downed tree in a roadside canal at Mattamuskeet

Driving on Hwy 94 north of Mattamuskeet, we spotted two more bears, bringing our total for the trip to 15. Our last stop was going to be Pettigrew State Park. On the way we passed through the small town of Creswell, and, to my surprise, there was a new coffee shop in town, Big Blue 252. I made a quick stop and we went in for some delicious coffee and pastries. This will definitely change my itinerary on future trips as good coffee is important on long days in the field (and is hard to come by in these parts). I normally don’t promote businesses in my blog, but, this is an exciting find and the owner, Alfreda, is great. Check it out if you are in the area.

My new go-to place when in the vicinity of Pettigrew State Park

And I was so excited by this find, that I didn’t even see a new small restaurant that has opened up across the street until we pulled away. These new businesses will make my stays in bear and bird country all the more enjoyable.

All in all, a great couple of days in my favorite public lands in North Carolina. Great birds, lots of bears, and good friends (and coffee!!). Wishing you all a wonderful holiday and hoping you have a chance to get outside and enjoy the beauty of a winter day, wherever you may find yourself this week.

December in the Woods

Wild is the music of the autumnal winds amongst the faded woods.

~William Wordsworth

I’m trying to get into our woods every few days to see the changes that are occurring as autumn transitions to the bones of winter. The big change this week was the sudden accumulation of oak leaves on the forest floor. It seems they all fell at once, carpeting the ground in a crunchy brown rug. Meanwhile, the trail cameras are still getting lots of deer videos, but the rut has quieted and things are not as frantic as a few weeks ago. Here are a couple of forest vignettes from this past week…

— Our family of Raccoons (I believe it is a mother and three youngsters that are now about as big as she is) continue to dig up the leaf litter every night. They have a regular path they follow, grubbing around for who knows what (worms, grubs, other insects, acorns??).

— This young buck is curious about the camera. He has a somewhat irregular set of antlers.

— This majestic buck has appeared on a few video clips during the rut. I think it is a 9-pointer (the antler spread is greater than the 8-pointer I regularly see on the trail cameras).

I’ve noticed a lot of variation in the antler size and shape in our deer herd. White-tailed Deer typically have fairly symmetrical antlers with an equal size, spacing, and number of points on both sides. But, so-called atypical antlers, are not uncommon. The young buck in the video shows a strange bend on one side and some waviness in the point of its antler. I can’t tell from the video if a point was broken or it is just an odd shape. Antler deformities can occur in three major ways: injuries to the pedicel (the antler growing base attached to the skull); injuries to the antler when it is in velvet (the soft, hair-like membrane rich in blood that covers the antlers during their growth phase in spring and summer); or leg injuries. This last one caught me by surprise when I read it. Apparently, the mechanism for the relationship between leg injuries and antler deformation is not well known, but scientists think it may be the result of reallocation of nutrients from antler growth to healing the bone in a leg injury. Oddly, an injury (such as a car collision) to a front left leg can cause a deformity in the left antler, but an injury to a left rear leg may result in the right antler being misshapen. Observing our wild neighbors always seems to bring up more questions and the resulting online searches usually reveal many surprises.

What the Cameras See

The trees will tell their secrets to those who tune in.

~Steven Magee

I check the trail cameras once a week or so and am always anxious to see what secrets they uncover in our woods. The past few weeks it has mainly been squirrels chasing each other around and deer, lots of deer. November is the peak of the mating season (aka rut) for deer in our area and they have been busy. The abundant acorn crop is giving them plenty of food so they all look in their prime. There is a herd of about nine does that I see regularly on the cameras. Several bucks (at least four or five that are 6-pointers or larger) are making the rounds, chasing does and challenging each other and nearby tree saplings. Here are a few of the highlights from this month.

— Three large bucks (look for one to come in from the left) check each other one morning behind the house before one big guy becomes the obvious king

— One large buck comes in near the end to chase a doe. The cameras have caught many cases of bucks chasing does in the last few weeks.

— Sometimes a buck is just looking, hoping for a doe to be near. This beautiful 8-pointer likes the camera

— It is not all about the deer. Here, my oldest camera model captures a grainy night-time image of four raccoons (one adult and three young) climbing the large Tulip Poplar that serves as a den tree

— It has been a few weeks since the cameras caught a coyote. Here is a slow motion view of beautiful canine trotting along a favorite coyote pathway in our woods.

November Treat

Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.

~John Muir

It’s been awhile since I posted. Not sure where the time goes, but here we are. Last week I had a last minute idea to run down to my favorite wildlife refuges for a wildlife observation and photography fix. The weather was supposed to be nice and cold on Friday, so I thought whatever birds have arrived this early might be active as would the bears. I didn’t get out as early as planned but arrived at the Pungo Unit about 9 a.m. I went straight to “Bear Road” and there were 4 cars there so I headed elsewhere. As I approached the impoundment, I could see two trucks and several photographers out in the vicinity of last year’s Eastern Screech Owl roost so I figured it was still there. Several people were getting back into their vehicle as I drove up, so I just slowed down and stopped for a second to take a photo – yup, still there!

This beautiful Eastern Screech Owl (red color morph) is still using the same roost as last year (click photos to enlarge)

It is always nice to spend time with the swans on Marsh A, so I pulled up and sat for awhile, window down, listening to their soothing sounds and watching them preen, bathe, feed, and interact.

Tundra Swans have arrived on the Pungo Unit

I scanned the back side of the water and saw what I had hoped for, a few Sandhill Cranes preening amongst the swans.

The gray colors of the Sandhill Cranes separate them from the mostly white Tundra Swans

The light was pretty bright, the water in the canals is low, and the vegetation along the canals high (making it difficult to see anything in the canals), so I decided to head over to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge for a couple of hours to see what was happening there. The deterioration of the water quality in the lake the past several years means that now there is almost never anything to see on the causeway road across the lake (I used to see plenty of swans and other waterfowl feeding or resting on the lake near the causeway, but not now).

As I approached Wildlife Drive I saw movement along side the shrubs lining the road – a Virginia Opossum! It was grubbing through the short grass out from the shrubs, pausing every now and then to munch on something it found. I pulled a U-turn and stopped near it. It scurried to the cover of the shrubs, but soon came out and started feeding again. It gradually came closer and I took a few photos before it headed back to the edge of the cover and stared grooming itself.

I noticed that it had a tooth exposed on both sides of its mouth. I don’t know if this is typical for an opossum to be snaggle-toothed, but I think it is a good look.

You’ve got to admit, opossums are just cute

At the lodge, I saw one Great Blue Heron in the usual roosting spot grove of trees across the canal. There are some ducks, but not much else yet and water levels are low in the impoundment.

A Great Blue Heron surveying its world

After talking with a friend I saw near the lodge, I headed back to Pungo for the remainder of the afternoon. Driving near Marsh A, I stopped to take a couple of photos of the screech owl since no one else was around. The little guy seems oblivious to any admirers and just sits in the late day sun, soaking it all in.

A couple of quick photos and then I moved on, leaving his little guy to its peace and quiet

I had seen three bears near the entrance when I first drove in, so I figured I might as well head over to “Bear Road” and see what I could see. There were 5 cars already there and I could see a group of a dozen or so photographers at the far end of the field. Oh well…I walked down and then slipped into the woods for some quiet time before I reached the crowd. I sat down on a log to enjoy the golden light flooding the forest and soon heard the tell-tale heavy tapping of a large woodpecker behind me. I eased around and saw a Pileated Woodpecker hammering away at a vine encrusted tree trunk.

— A Pileated Woodpecker hammers on a tree snag looking for dinner

After watching it for a few minutes, it suddenly flew off and landed in a tree above me, frozen against the trunk. Did it see something I had missed – a predator like a hawk or owl? It remained motionless for a minute or two before finally moving up and around the tree.

This view clearly shows the toe placement (like an X) and stiff tail spines that are woodpecker adaptations for clinging to vertical surfaces

I eased out of the woods as the crowd was headed back to their cars, excitedly talking about the bears they had seen and sharing images from their cameras. Out in the field were three bears, a sow and two cubs, grazing in the light of a setting sun. Swans returning to the lake were highlighted in the golden light as they called their soothing ou, ou sounds. As I walked by one of the people on the road, he asked if I had any good shots of the bears. I responded that I hadn’t really tried, I just wanted to be out there with the sights and sounds of the refuge. I’m not sure he understood…but every time I am there, I just want to sit quietly and take it all in. I do love to take photos, but I am realizing that I love the quiet, solitude, and the memories even more.

A sow and one of her cubs feeding in a field along “Bear Road”

Happy Halloween

Like delicate lace, so the threads intertwine, oh, gossamer web of wond’rous design! Such beauty and grace wild nature produces…

~Bill Watterson

Yes, ’tis that special holiday, ’tis Halloween. And we manage to gravitate toward all manner of spooky things and transfer our fears anew to many elements of the natural world such as bats, wolves, and spiders. One of my favorite arachnids is aptly particularly evident this time of year – the Marbled Orbweaver, Araneus marmoreus. It’s relatively large size and bright yellow-orange colors make it particularly noticeable in October and gives rise to a couple of its other common names – Pumpkin Spider and Halloween Spider.

Last week I was changing cards in my trail cameras in our woods and took my camera along in case I saw anything interesting. I’m always checking for spider webs in my path this time of year as many orbweavers reach their peak size and, therefore, apparent abundance, in October. I try to avoid the silk-in-my-face greeting of most of these weavers by doing the forest side step if I spot the web or one of the often long anchor lines. This species creates a hide outside the main web, a fact that I appreciate as it means you are much less likely to have a crawling spider on your head or face if you should miss seeing their gossamer handiwork in your path. When a prey item lands in the web, she can feel the vibrations and rushes out of the hide to subdue her meal. I suppose if you are such a noticeable bright color, it pays to have a place to conceal yourelf from would-be predators.

I soon spotted a beauty highlighted in the the dappled sunlight in her holly leaf shelter on our south slope. I stopped to admire her intricate black patterns on a bold yellow background and grabbed a few photos.

Marbled Orbweaver in her silken hide (click photos to enlarge)

Walking a few feet more and I missed seeing another silken line and got entangled in a large web of another Halloween Spider. When I pulled on it to free myself, the owner dropped out of her hide onto the ground and scuttled away (a common defense strategy), but not before I managed a photo as she crossed an equally colorful fallen leaf.

This Halloween Spider dropped from her web and scurried under some leaves on the ground, allowing me only a photo before she disappeared.

As it turns out, this beautiful species is the subject of an article I wrote for the October issue of Walter magazine. Last year I was approached by the magazine editor (at the suggestion of some of my former co-workers at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences) and asked if I would be willing to write a monthly nature column. I had heard of this publication, but wasn’t that familiar with its content. After looking at it, it struck me as a quality magazine that I likened to being similar to an Our State magazine for the Triangle area. They have high production values and I am impressed by the quality and range of topics covered. I encourage you to take a look and subscribe if you agree. Here is a link to this month’s spider article with more information and photos. You can search for my other monthly articles (starting last January) in the archives by putting Nature in the search box on their website and scrolling through the articles. I must admit, I never thought I would have my photos of spiders and the like next to advertisements for Rolex watches, but, it’s a good chance to reach a broader audience.

A beautiful Marbled Orbweaver spotted on the ground one Halloween weekend long ago on a museum educator workshop about elk in Cataloochee Valley.

And here’s wishing you all a safe, sweets-filled, and Happy Halloween!