Ash, Arachnids, and Additional Associated A Words I can’t come up with for this title.

Back in early November, I woke up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. (That makes it sound like I was surprised to wake up there. I wasn’t – I’d driven there the night before. Anyway…) I went for a sunrise walk on a hill where a prescribed burn had occurred a few weeks before.

Not surprisingly, there wasn’t much activity. The growing season was long past, there was a light frost on the ground, and a fire had recently swept across the site. I was mostly there because of the nice view of the river in the distance and to see how the fire had burned (I wasn’t there for the fire and was just curious).

Unburned yucca and pine trees stand out in a matrix of black ash from a recent prescribed fire on a hill at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

When the sun popped over the ridge to the east, I suddenly became aware that I was surrounded by millions of silken strands, strewn across the blackened ground. I’ve seen this many times, usually in the fall, I think, and often in burned areas. I don’t think the phenomenon is tied strictly to burned areas, but the contrast between silk and ash makes it easy to see there.

This is not a great representative photo of the mass of silk shining in the sun. Two reasons: first, I got distracted by the second subject of this post, and second, this is a subject that’s really hard to photograph. The strands here were a tiny example of what was covering acres and acres of ground.

Some of you might recall a blog post by Katharine Hogan during her time as a Hubbard Fellow a few years ago, in which she described a similar observation. She asked me what was causing it and I gave her guesses, but they were only guesses. After some research, she came up with some reasonable possibilities and opened the floor for others to chime in. I’m still not sure why this occurs, or whether there is a tie to autumn or recently burned areas, but I’m pretty sure it’s a mass ballooning event by spiders. Maybe they were leaving the area after the burn? Maybe they were spiderlings that hatched after the fire and were heading elsewhere? Maybe they were just spiders passing through on migration and the burned area simply made the silk easier to spot?

When I noticed the silk, I started walking toward the sun, looking for a way to photograph the way the strands glowed in that light. As I did, my eye was caught by a tiny movement. I stopped, foot in air, and backed up to look again. Kneeling down, I spotted a small spider crawling along a line of silk, dragging another line behind it. Again, this was within a recently burned area on a November morning with frost on the ground.

This spider was less than a half inch long and was busily building a web on a frosty November morning.

Well, I thought to myself, maybe I’ve solved the mystery! But looking around, it was clear there weren’t millions of nearby spiders doing the same thing. It seemed more likely it was an anomaly – a spider that had decided this was a good place hang out for a while and spin a web. I didn’t think there was much chance it was going to catch a meal in that web, but I sure intrigued by the attempt. I laid down on the ashy ground with my camera and tripod and watched it work.

While I was surprised to see the spider on a cold morning, it wasn’t a total shock. Way back in the first year of this blog, I shared a story about watching a juvenile wolf spider move around on a frozen stream on a much colder day. Here’s a photo of that hardy soul:

This little spider was moving across a frosty frozen stream near Lincoln, Nebraska in the middle of winter back in 2007.

Eventually, I had to get up and start walking back to my truck (we were getting ready for another prescribed burn). Before I did, though, I managed to get a photo of the spider’s face, hoping that would help me figure out what species it was and whether this cold weather web-spinning was common behavior for its kind. The arrangement of the eyes on its face was typical of orb weaving spiders, but that wasn’t a surprise, given what it was doing. I still haven’t identified it, so if anyone happens to know, clue me in!

Does anyone recognize this face? Or the overall appearance? I’d love to know what species this spider is.

Whether this spider knew something I didn’t, or was building a futile web out of instinct or stubbornness, I admired its stubbornness and industriousness. Sometimes, when you don’t know the right thing to do, you just do what you can and hope for the best. I hope the spider didn’t need a meal to sustain it through the winter and that it built itself a silken winter shelter soon after I saw it. If so, there’s a pretty good chance it will be out there to spin a web again next spring, and if so, I wish it good hunting.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

13 thoughts on “Ash, Arachnids, and Additional Associated A Words I can’t come up with for this title.

  1. What a timely post! A few days ago I was outdoors photographing in the prairie near our home in southern Wisconsin when a tiny ballooning spiderling floated onto my coat, still attached to the strand of web that had carried it to its inconvenient landing spot. I lifted it up by the web and carried it over to the prairie grasses.

    Looking forward to meeting you (virtually) at the upcoming 2021 TPE Conference.

  2. I see that I commented on Katharine’s post. About three weeks ago, I saw the same phenomenon again: thousands of strands of silk caught on boat rigging, from the top of 65′ masts to lifelines surrounding the decks. There’s a lot I’m not sure of, but their presence around the boats makes me certain the ballooning isn’t a result of fire, and I’m fairly certain it’s a seasonal phenomenon. It’s certainly eye-catching.

    • I’ve been meaning to ask you: was David George Haskell’s book The Forest Unseen part of the inspiration for your square meter project? I just discovered his book, and have ordered it, along with yours. With a new year approaching, I may look for my own spot to become friends with.

      • No, in fact I hadn’t heard of it until just now, but I think I’ll have to order it as well! Looks fantastic, and now I’m hoping people won’t think I stole his idea! Given how long we discussed and argued (publisher and I) about myriad title options for mine, it’s a little scary that we came up with something so similar to his!

  3. Pingback: Ash, Arachnids, and Additional Associated A Words I can’t come up with for this title. — The Prairie Ecologist – Pershspective

  4. Where I live, when someone says “black ash” they mean a tree. I actually looked at your picture for this tree before I realized what you were referencing. It had me laughing at myself for a moment.

    You would undoubtly be able to see a whole host of different creatures (spiders, centipedes, etc.) if you did night photography. The difficulty is you would have to provide the source of light. This might be a way for you to “photograph insects down there (underground).” Instead of getting past “obstacles” you could just wait for the underground insects to come to you.

  5. I have seen harvested cotton fields covered (at least 20 acres) with strands like that. Amazing sight. We marveled with our neighbors. Never spotted spiders.

  6. Yesterday I was walking in one of our local forest preserves and made the exact same observations at a burn there – look at the spider “webs.” What sprang to my mind was the memory of an article I read many years ago about spiders being among the first colonizers on islands after volcanic destruction. Hm.

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