Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A grand wildlife adventure on a tiny scale

Today, I spent some time in the yard on a mini-adventure. Though small in scale, it was packed with amazing encounters and observations. Incredibly colored animals that would rival tropical birds, a unusual predator waiting in ambush and a busy nectar gatherer all found... on the same plant!

It never ceases to amaze me what wonders await us out in nature. Even great adventures and awe-inspiring experiences are there to be had in a single pot of plants.

One of my routines for getting in touch with and learning from nature is the "sit spot." This is an exercise in which you find a place in nature in which you can sit at least 5 times a week and observe all the comings and goings around you. Generally, you do it for at least 30 minutes at a time. This helps ground a person in nature, as well as allows for connection to have a chance to grow and strength over time. Also, the act of being in a place over time allows us to observe change over time. This is a technique I learned at Wilderness Awareness School, both from the residential program and from the at home-learning course called the Kamana Naturalist Training Program.

Anyway, I decided to spend time being with and observing a sunflower we have growing a planter outside for my sit spot time. Inside the nearly foot-high planter, is several tall sunflower plants. The most developed has a large flower that is at eye level for me.

As they can be for many people, flowers are magnets to wildlife. Being around this flower and its siblings brought me in contact with some really fascinating creatures.

The sunflower itself was beautiful to behold. Its brilliant yellow petals radiating away from its center. A mound of what appear to be anthers covered in pollen at its center. But actually, the mound in the center is made up of many small flowers.

When each of those flowers is pollinated, it will close up and turn its energy to forming a seed.
Many animals seem to enjoy visiting sunflowers to drink nectar and collect pollen. Especially bees...

And I had the privilege of getting to observe one come and collect nectar and pollen actively from the many tiny flowers at the sunflowers center. It did so rapidly, spending less than a second at each one.

In this case, I believe it was western leafcutting bee (Megachile perihirta) or at least this is my best guest according to my Audubon field guide to insects. A cool looking, fuzzy bee which I don't believe I have ever seen before that is about the same size as a honeybee.

The bee soon flew off to forage else where, and I was left to sit with and inspect the life on and around the sunflowers some more. I soon discovered an odd brown dot on the green stem of the plant. Though the sunflower stalks did have a few dead, brown leaves still attached to their stem, they are very green overall. As I looked more closely at the little brown dot I noticed it had legs. Long legs. Only 4 legs, and oddly enough, all on the same side of its body.

The little brown dot turned out to be a spider, some kind of crab spider most likely. Though, I could not find a match in any of my field guides. So its identity, even at the family level shall remain a mystery for now.

Its legs did not span much beyond the diameter of my thumb nail. What really grabbed me about this little fellow, was the fact that it only had legs on one side of its body. Just one side! Four legs... perfectly good legs by the looks of it. But what of the other half of its body? I looked carefully around the stem of the plant to be sure they weren't hidden some how. Well, they were not.

I suddenly really felt for this spider and wondered if it was even possible for it to feed itself. I decided to watch it for a while and see if I could have any insight into its life and the challenges it must face. Within a few minutes, a little green aphid walked up the stem and just below and behind the spider. The movement triggered the spider to respond. It pounced with great finesse and the aphid only escaped by a hair. It had been waiting perfectly motionless in ambush for long before I came along and spotted it. Even having witnessed it, how it was possible for the spider to move so quickly with legs only on one side of its body is still a mystery.

Despite this little creatures obvious physical challenges, it still had a strong will to live. It is a miracle that a spider that is so challenged can still survive and even thrive. It speaks volumes to the power and ability for life to find a way... The sunflower is better because of its presence too, as it helps thin out the insects the drain the plant of its juices and consume its leaves.

As you might see beautifully colored birds on a hike into the forests or jungles, so too can you see intensely colored animals on a miniature hike through a pot of plants.

I found 2 different species of some brilliantly
colored insects hanging out on the same sunflower plant.
The one on the right is called a blue-green leafhopper (Graphocephala atropunctata). I discovered it hanging out temporarily on one of the long petals of the sunflower. It soon departed by leaping into the air and flying across the yard.

The other I found hiding in the
shade of the green sepals of an
unopened sunflower. This species is called the scarlet-and-green leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea).

It did not leave as the other one had. Instead, it stayed very still.

These two living jewels reminded me with their colors of the brilliant parrots I saw while traveling in Peruvian amazon jungle with my wife.

We need not travel far to see the marvels of nature. They are all around us, all the time. We need only slow down, and look carefully and closely.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Our 8 legged neighbors

Spiders seem a natural topic to start with given that that are a frequent visitor in my life lately. There is a good number of them living throughout the area surrounding my home. Even in my yard there is a wealth of spider species, many of which I do not know very well or at all. It seems for each micro-habitat, there are several species of spider.

One of the most common in my yard and from my experience, throughout the greater Puget Sound area is the garden or cross spider, also called the cross orb weaver (Araneus diadematus). They often have a series of white dots or lines on their abdomen that form a whitish cross.

It is the in orb weaver family of spiders, which are the ones that make beautiful spiraling webs on support lines. These webs tend to radiate out from the center, and are amazing to watch being built. This species, like many in its family will spin a new web each night. Though, weird as it might sound, they don't waste the old silk from the previous nights web. They eat it!

Nature is super-efficient and nothing goes to waste.

Like most members in the orb weaver family, this species has fairly small eyes and therefore, poor eye sight. Probably seeing mainly shapes and movement. Their sense of touch is very keen, however. If you so much as breath gently on their web they will feel it and respond.

Here is a shot of the underside of one of those beautiful spiders.

Despite the fact that these spiders can grow to a pretty good size - females can be 3/4" in body length and legs can spread to about 2 inches - they are very gentle animals. Like most spiders, they generally don't bite even when they are handled carefully.

Here is a topside view of the same kind of spider.

To me they are a powerful symbol of interconnection, weaving of dreams and creative force of nature and the universe. They are also one of my favorite invertebrates.

Seen these around your yard, outside your home or office?

In the beginning...

The idea behind this blog is to post about my adventures in nature. Whether that be in my backyard or in a roadless wilderness area. I think that we humans are very visually oriented creatures, and so, it is much more interesting to us (to me personally, for sure) to have a story that includes photos.

I want this blog to be a channel of communication with friends and family about the goings on in my life in Nature. Also, it seems to be a good potential outlet to express my own personal passion for the natural world and all the mysteries within it.

Like the marks left by the leaf in this image, may the words shared here by myself and everyone else who posts here be a set of tracks to lead us all deeper into the mysteries of nature. Both outside and within ourselves...