Photos of the Week – December 3, 2021

I haven’t done as much photography as I’d like lately. Some of that is because it’s been mostly warm and there’s been a distinct lack of frost, ice, or snow. Over the last couple weeks, though, I’ve managed to get out a couple times. Here are some of the results.

Frosty prairie wild rose hips. Deep Well Wildlife Management Area. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 800, f/14, 1/200 sec.
Frosty prairie wild rose hips. Deep Well Wildlife Management Area. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 800, f/14, 1/200 sec.

I spent a nice morning at Deep Well Wildlife Management Area last weekend. There was some frost that morning, which provided a little extra incentive for photography. I wandered around the wetland portion of the site for a while, but ended up in the restored prairie pretty quickly. The bright red fruits of wild rose were an immediate draw. I also noticed how many cattail seeds were stuck on prairie plants – even 1/4 mile or more from the wetland. They made nice photos, but as an ecologist, I wasn’t happy to be reminded of the effectiveness with which that invader can spread.

Cattail seed and sunflower head. Deep Well Wildlife Management Area. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 800, f/13, 1/125 sec.
Cattail seed and sunflower head. Deep Well Wildlife Management Area. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 800, f/11, 1/800 sec.

On my way back to the truck I finally noticed the small group of trumpeter swans hanging out in the middle of the wetland. I managed a photo to document their presence, but it wasn’t anything besides that. It was fun to see them – I don’t usually see them outside the Sandhills this time of year.

There was a culvert under the road that splits the wetland into two pieces. On the downstream end of that culvert, I came across a pile of aquatic snails just beneath the thin layer of ice on top of the water. I wasn’t sure if they were dead or alive, but at least some of them definitely weren’t empty. The snails covered an area about the size of a king sized bed and were several layers deep. I’m not sure how to interpret what was happening there, but it was certainly interesting. I might have to go back when it’s warmer and see if I can learn more.

Snails under ice. Deep Well Wildlife Management Area. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 800, f/16, 1/60 sec.

Two weekends ago, I did some work at our family prairie. I was using a spade to reshape the banks of an ephemeral stream (though that makes it sound like more than it really is). Some historic headcutting created some steep banks and I was trying to slope those out a little. As I was digging around, I kept finding big beetles that had buried themselves for the winter. I stopped and photographed one of them. Anyone recognize it? It looks to me like some kind of June beetle, but I’m hesitant even to say that. I tried to rebury all the ones I found – I hope they can return to their winter rest.

Scarab beetle in its winter hiding place. Helzer family prairie. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/50 sec.
The same beetle after I’d rousted it out of its hole for a photo. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/50 sec.

I appreciate the warm days we’ve had, but I’m also looking forward to having some snow, ice, or frost to accent the dull browns that dominate the landscape right now. When that happens, I’ll feel more motivated to get out and explore. But that’s also bad attitude on my part. When I force myself to go out, even when there aren’t any icy highlights around, I always find something interesting – just like I always preach to others. I should probably listen to myself a little more…

Down feather stuck to a sunflower stem. Deep Well Wildlife Management Area. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 800, f/10, 1/400 sec.

Our Family Spiders

We’re pretty tolerant of spiders in our house. In fact, we’re downright welcoming. At any one time, there are usually a couple house spider funnel webs in the corners of our windows, helping to catch the flies that frequent those same spots. The webs made by the cellar spiders down in the basement sometimes get in the way, but I don’t really hold that against them.

The funnel web of a house spider in our living room yesterday.

Our family favorites are the jumping spiders. I’m a fan of them for lots of reasons, starting with their big eyes and (often) fuzzy teddy bear bodies. In addition, they’re just mesmerizing to watch. Unlike web weaving spiders, jumpers roam around in search of prey, so they put on a good show. The one currently living with us likes to move between the big south facing windows of our dining room and living room several times a day.

Here’s our current jumping spider, which hangs out on our living room and dining room windows.

When I work at the dining room table, I enjoy being able to keep an eye on the jumping spider as it patrols its territory. Now that we’ve had some hard freezes, the number of insects hanging out in the windows has really dropped off, but there are still a few flies around. The other day, I watched it stalk a lady bug. When it got about an inch away, it pounced, but then immediately backed off. I’m not sure if it was the beetle’s hard shell or bad taste that repelled the spider, but whatever it was worked very well for the lady bug.

A fly carcass left by the jumping spider in our dining room window.
Here’s the little jumper hiding in the corner of the window while I tried to act like I wasn’t interested in photographing it.

I recognize that spiders aren’t the world’s most popular group of organisms. Many of us have a kind of instinctive reaction when we see a spider. It’s something you can train yourself out of, but there’s not much incentive for most people to do that. The deluge of misinformation about spiders floating around certainly doesn’t help.

The vast majority of spiders aren’t at all dangerous to people. Those that can be dangerous (black widows and brown recluses, for example) are not hanging around waiting for an opportunity to attack you. It’s good to know who they are so you can be smart around them, but it’s also important to recognize that all the other spiders you see are harmless.

One of my biggest pet peeves is how often people claim to have ‘spider bites’, which – as far as I can tell – include any small red, itchy, or painful bump someone might find on their body. Hey everyone, you’re not getting bit by spiders. You’re just not. That’s not how they work. If you got bit by a black widow or brown recluse, you’d know it. Those other ‘bites’ are ingrown hairs, pimples, insect bites, or something else besides a spider bite. Good grief. Seriously.

Here’s the jumping spider on the glass, hunting for flies.

If you’re not a spider fan, I’m not here to judge you. I would encourage you to learn a little more about them just so you don’t live in constant fear of something that’s not worth worrying about. If, on the other hand, you’re like our family, and are comfortable with them, spiders can be pretty amazing to have around the house.

Regardless of whether you like them or not, you have to admit spiders are fascinating. Just the fact that they walk around using hydraulic pressure to move their legs (!!) should be enough to get your attention. The next time you watch the jumping spider on your window sneak up to a fly and pounce on it, remember that its jump is powered by fluid being pumped into its legs very quickly. How can you not be in awe of a creature like that?