Photo of the Week – October 1, 2015

This has been a week of big black spiders.  …In a good way.

First, my wife brought home a huge black wolf spider one of her biology students caught.  It stayed the weekend, and my stepson helped me photograph it on Sunday.  Later this week, I found the biggest jumping spider I’ve ever seen just outside the house at our Platte River Prairies field headquarters.  I had to photograph that too, of course…  Here are some of the photos of those spiders, and a little bit about how I got them.

Big wolf spider. Aurora, Nebraska.

A big wolf spider (Hogna aspersa).  Including its legs, it was about as long as a lip balm container.

Another look.

Another look.

To photograph the wolf spider, I utilized a long-standing technique of mine.  Some of you might remember a previous post I wrote about using a wheelbarrow as a wildlife photography studio.  I brought out the same wheelbarrow again for this spider, but had my stepson assist me by holding a diffuser (to soften the bright sunlight) and helping to keep the spider from getting away.  Having an assistant made the job much easier, though also much less humorous for any potential observers of the process.  (Though I’m still pretty sure my neighbors are keeping their eyes open for houses in better neighborhoods.  Between the pile of garter snakes beneath our backyard snake board and the giant hairy spider in our wheelbarrow, we’re not exactly everyone’s picture of the ideal neighbor!)

Atticus was a big help, both diffusing the light and keeping the spider contained.

Atticus was a big help, both diffusing the light and keeping the spider contained.

When I first saw the jumping spider, I was talking with our Hubbard Fellows and waiting for someone to meet us at the house.  It was perched on a Maximilian sunflower plant in the prairie garden.  I put it in a paper bag until I had time to look more carefully at it.  Later, I took the top of the sunflower plant the spider had been on, cut it off, stuck it into a pocket gopher mound, and carefully relocated the spider to it.  The Fellows then got to watch me squirm around on my hands and knees with my camera, trying to cajole the spider into posing for the camera.  We did promise the Fellows a wide range of experiences, I guess…

Big jumping spider (Phiddipus apacheanus on Maximilian sunflower. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Big jumping spider (Phiddipus apacheanus) on Maximilian sunflower. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Big jumping spider on Maximilian sunflower. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Isn’t she cute?  She was nearly 3/4 inches long – the longest jumping spider I’ve seen.

I’ve spent more than 20 years looking at spiders and other invertebrates in Nebraska prairies, and I pride myself on being a fairly keen observer.  It’s an inspiring thing to me that I’d never seen either of these spider species before this week.  I hope I never stop finding new prairie species to marvel at.

…especially species that fit into my wheelbarrow!

Many thanks (once again) to Bill Beachly of Hastings College for his help identifying these spiders – which, by the way, he called “lovely ladies”.

Meet Your Neighbors

Thanks to Mark Godfrey (The Nature Conservancy) for alerting me to this project.

One of the things I try to do with my photography is show people creatures and plants that they might otherwise never notice.  I love hearing people say things like, “I had NO IDEA something like that lived near me!” when I’m giving presentations.  Of course, real success comes when I can inspire those same people to go out and make their own discoveries.  It’s hard to dismiss conservation as unimportant when you’ve actually met the species that hang in the balance. 

The “Meet Your Neighbors” project looks like a kindred spirit.  The project celebrates common species from around the world through portrait-style photographs.  They’re working with numerous photographers to capture images of these species in front of a plain white background that causes the viewer to really examine and appreciate the physical attributes of each species. 

Tree Hopper - Aurora, Nebraska. Although I normally like to photograph insects in their natural environment, I've played around with the kind of studio/white background format used by the "Meet Your Neighbors" project. The power of the format is that it forces the viewer to really pay attention to the creature itself - which is plenty beautiful.

You might wonder why the project doesn’t highlight rare species instead of common species.  There’s obvious value in showcasing rare species to get people tuned in to their plight.  But I also think it’s powerful to show people the species that are (literally) right in their backyard.  Those are the species most of us will actually be able to meet in person, and which can catalyze an interest in nature and conservation.  I think it’s a fantastic idea and a well-organized effort.  I wish them all success.

Please visit their website to learn more about the project.

Larva of a Green June Beetle. This big white grub crawls around on its back with its legs sticking up in the air - which is not only very cool, but also the distinguishing characteristic that separates it from other beetle larvae. Thanks to Ted MacRae for identification and natural history information.