Nursery web spiders

The nursery web spider (Dolomedes minor) is one of New Zealand’s larger spiders, in spite of it’s species name. At this time of the year, it’s also one of the more visible spiders, or at least its webs are.

Nursery web spiders don’t use webs to catch food. Instead, they use their silk to create shelters for their eggs and newly-hatched young. These shelters are visible in late summer and autumn on the tips of shrubby plants, especially gorse.

The female spider can sometimes be seen hanging around the web during the day. In fact, if she’s nearby, its hard to miss her, with a body nearly two centimetres long, and a leg span reaching six centimetres.

The nursery web isn’t the only care the nursery web spider gives her young. Until the spiderlings are near to hatching, she carries the egg sac with her to protect it. The young hatch out inside the nursery web, staying within the web’s protection for about a week.

The spiderlings disperse by ballooning—they let out a strand of silk until the force of the wind blowing on it is greater than their own weight, and then they float away on the end of the thread to a new home.

Like other members of the genus Dolomedes, the nursery web spider is an ambush hunter, chasing down its prey on foot. But most other Dolomedes do this exclusively on or in water, whereas the nursery web spider hunts on land as well as water, eating a wide range of invertebrates.

Earthworm!

Most people give little thought to earthworms. Even gardeners, who appreciate their presence, don’t spend much time considering which species of worm are present.

But species matters.

Here in New Zealand, we have about 200 species of earthworms, most of which are native. The native and non-native worms are sharply segregated by habitat—natives in native habitats, non-natives in agricultural and urban habitats. So all the worms we see in our gardens are non-native species.

When you’re used to the small to medium sized non-native worms, finding a native worm is exciting. They’re generally larger than the non-native worms—sometimes much larger. Some can grow to nearly a metre and a half (59 in) in length.

We were lucky enough to find this native worm on Mount Oxford over the weekend. I can’t positively identify the species, but it’s likely to be Octochaetus multiporus. This was a young specimen—not yet reproductive age (as evidenced by its lack of a clitellum)—but already about 20 cm (8 in) long and as thick as my pinky finger. This particular species grows to about 30 cm (12 in) long.

O. multiporus is a particularly interesting worm because it is bioluminescent and spits a bioluminescent defence compound when disturbed. On the bright sunny day we found this one, there was no hope of seeing any bioluminescence. Still, it was a great find on our walk.

Fungal Wonderland

A family hike on Saturday took us through a fungal wonderland on Mount Oxford. Everywhere we looked, it seemed, fruiting bodies were popping out. White, brown, blue, purple, red, black—fabulous diversity of species, form and colour.

My favourite of the day, however, were not the big, showy Amanita muscaria or the lurid purple Cortinarius porphyroideus, but these unassuming (and unidentifiable by us) little shelf fungi. They were growing out of the underside of a fallen log we had to duck under, and their gills made stunning, artistic patterns. Unremarkable though the mushrooms themselves were, the perspective of seeing them from below turned them into something truly special.

Amazing how a simple shift of perspective can turn the ordinary extraordinary.

International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. Today I’m pleased to live in the country that was first to achieve women’s suffrage—in 1893. It would not have happened without the tireless effort of many women. Kate Sheppard, who led the charge, is commemorated on New Zealand’s $10 note.

Five bills giving women the vote, the first as early as 1878, nearly passed Parliament before the 1893 bill was successful. The successful bill was backed up by a petition signed by 32,000 women. That may not seem like a lot of signatures today, but it represented one-quarter of the female population of the country. That achievement, at a time before social media, e-mail, faxes, or even decent road access to much of the country, is truly astonishing.

Of course, suffrage was only one step in the journey toward gender equality. It wasn’t until 1933 that New Zealand saw its first female Member of Parliament, and though we’ve now had three female Prime Ministers, women are still underrepresented in the government. Women still earn 9 percent less than men (though that is much better than the 18 percent difference in Australia, the UK and the US). Women still face sexism at work and in daily life. There is still much to be done.

But I am heartened by the progress that has been made. It is encouraging to see younger women and girls speaking up and speaking out, and taking for granted rights and opportunities my generation was only beginning to grasp at their age.

As a Peace Corps volunteer twenty-five years ago, much of the work I did was with women, empowering them to be leaders in their community and beyond. It is generally acknowledged in international development circles that if you empower the women, you raise the well-being of the entire community (more so than if you expend the same effort empowering men). This is every bit as true in the developed world as it is in the developing world. No society benefits from oppressing half its population.

As a high school student, I participated in a job-shadowing day. At the time, I was interested in a career in wildlife management, so I shadowed a ranger at a local wildlife management area. When I walked in the door that morning, the director crossed his arms and scowled at me.

“We don’t like girls,” he said.

Well.

Sorry to hear that. We’re here to stay.

Green Orb Weaver

This year has apparently been good for the green orbweb spider (Colaranea viriditas); I usually see them only rarely, but I’ve run across quite a few this summer.

These beauties are pale green with a kelly green leaf-shaped mark covering the abdomen.

As the name implies, these spiders make orb webs—the spiral-shaped webs everyone’s familiar with. Though they’re primarily nocturnal, I’ve regularly seen them hanging out in the middle of their webs during the daytime (often snacking on an insect). These sharp-looking spiders apparently like a tidy web; they rebuild their webs nightly, and the webs are always as attractive as their residents.

The green orb weaver’s main predator is the native potter wasp, which paralyses the spiders with a sting and stuffs them into its nest for its larvae to feed on. However, the green orb weaver appears to be better at hiding from potter wasps than the non-native Australian orb weaver (at least on our property). Earlier this summer, the potter wasps decided that the screw holes in the bottom of the dining room table were perfect nest holes—every one of the dozens of orb weavers they crammed into the table was an Australian orb weaver.

I enjoy finding these little green gems in the garden. They’re as beautiful as they are helpful.

Magpie Moths

It’s the time of year when one of my favourite moths emerges—the magpie moth (Nyctemera annulata). Magpie moths are in the family Arctiidae—a family including many brightly coloured day-flying moths that threaten to blur the line between moth and butterfly. N. annulata is endemic to New Zealand, though it has a closely related Australian cousin, N. amica, with which it can interbreed.

Magpie moth caterpillars eat plants in the daisy family, especially in the genus Senecio. Common host plants include groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), and cineraria (Jacobaea maritima, formerly Senecio cineraria).

We have large quantities of groundsel, and a few sizeable cineraria on the property, so we always have a healthy population of magpie moths. The caterpillars are black with orange ‘racing’ stripes, and somewhat hairy.

As you can guess from their colouration, magpie moths are poisonous. As caterpillars, they sequester toxins from the plants they eat. These toxins deter most predators. The shining cuckoo, however, is apparently quite fond of magpie moth caterpillars. It avoids the poison by eating only the insides of the caterpillar, leaving the bitter-tasting exoskeleton behind.

In addition to eating weeds like groundsel and ragwort, the magpie moth is a beautiful, colourful addition to the garden. It always makes me smile.

The Square Trees and other natural wonders…sort of

The rock at Hanging Rock Bridge.

Years ago, when my husband and I were Peace Corps volunteers in the Republic of Panama, we visited the famous Arboles Quadratos (the Square Trees) in El Valle de Anton. The Arboles Quadratos were, according to the guidebooks, amazing freaks of nature—trees with perfectly square trunks. These remarkable plants grew in a special grove in the rainforest behind the hotel in El Valle, and were one of the town’s main tourist attractions.

So we went to see them.

They were buttressed trees, like many rainforest trees are. And the buttresses made them…sort of squarish, if you had a little imagination. I think there were, maybe, four of them in a cluster along the trail. Their beauty was completely overshadowed in my mind by the rest of the forest around them.

My daughter and I recently had a similar experience. On a road trip, we kept passing signs for Hanging Rock Bridge. It seemed all roads led to Hanging Rock Bridge. We figured it must be something pretty spectacular, if so many signs pointed the way to it.

So we went to see it.

And, yeah, there was an overhanging rock near the bridge. It was kind of cool. But the landscape around the bridge, with stunning limestone outcrops in every paddock, was far more spectacular than the bridge’s rock. If you’d gone out of your way to see the rock at Hanging Rock Bridge, you’d be disappointed.

Plenty of other ‘natural wonders’ fall short of the hype surrounding them. Others, unknown by anyone but locals, are truly stunning.

Like the Iglesia de Piedra, the Rock Church, near our village in Panama. This narrow chasm was carved by a small stream, and it’s one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been—maybe 30 metres deep, and so narrow you can touch both walls. Vegetation covers the opening high above, and makes everything look green below. The stream is shallow, and frogs hop away from every step. At the back of the chasm is a waterfall plunging all the way from the surface.

No tourists make pilgrimages to the Iglesia de Piedra. Few outside the surrounding area have ever heard of it. But it knocks the socks off many a popular tourist destination.

The world is full of these hidden gems, and one of the most wonderful things about living in different places is finding the local wonders. The beautiful places tourists never hear about.

I’ll still go to see the Square Trees and the Hanging Rock Bridges of the world, but much of the wonder of the world is reserved for those who live with it every day.