“Will you walk into my parlour..” *

A follow-up on my last entry, and not for the arachnophobic among you. I promise to take a break from spiders after this.

My dexterous orb-weaver spider caught a fly, and here it is all bundled up tidily:


Then she took it up into the eaves, and had supper:


And if you’d like to watch her dining techniques, here is an action video (like last time, watch in full frame if you can persuade it to do so).


* The Spider and the Fly  by Mary Howitt (1799–1888), was published in 1828. The first verse describes the content of my previous blog:

“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I’ve a many curious things to show when you are there.”


Several verses later it ends like this, a good accompaniment to this blog entry!


“Up jumped the cunning Spider, and fiercely held her fast.
He dragged her up his winding stair, into his dismal den,
Within his little parlour — but she ne’er came out again!”

“A thin premeditated rig”

“Natural History” by E.B. White

The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.

E. B. White most famously wrote Charlotte’s Web, one of my children’s favorite books, about a very smart spider called Charlotte.

Orb-weaver Spider

This week I watched an orb-weaver spider weaving her web in close-up, and it was remarkable.


The spinnerets are at the back of her abdomen, underneath. You can just see a silk thread stretching out to the left from the spinnerets.



She uses her back legs to pull the silk out of the spinnerets, carefully holding it up with just the right tension and angling it towards where she wants it to go.


Each time she reaches a spoke in the web, she pauses and somehow ties it in, before continuing. The tiny toes on the end of each leg hold onto the spokes as she lays down yet another perfect section of her spiral. The spiral thread is sticky, and catches her prey: you can see the sticky beads in the photo just above this text.


Here is a short video, best watched fullscreen if you can. Watch how she carefully pays out the thread as she tightrope-walks across her growing web:


All that work, and then orb weavers usually eat their web for breakfast, and spin a new one every day.

PS: Arachne was a renowned weaver, and the Greek goddess of spiders. Hence the name Arachnids for the class that includes spiders, scorpions, and ticks…

Thanksgiving on legs

For readers in the US, wild turkeys, Meleagris gallopavo, are no longer exciting, in fact they have become a nuisance. But for readers elsewhere they still I think hold a certain fascination. If not, stop reading now!

This solitary young female appears every day near our bird feeder, scratching around for what the birds have dropped. It is easy to see why they were hunted close to extinction for all that meat (up to 20lbs of it).


Their feathers are quite beautiful:


Their heads: well, that depends on the eye of the beholder:


If you look carefully you can see her ear, that circle below and to the right of her eye. And the conical spike on the top of her head is her snood. These are much much larger in males, and hang down right over the bill. They are highly erectile, getting larger and more brightly colored during courtship. The same is true of the lumpy red warts, called caruncles.

This time of year, the females are usually in groups with their young. They practice communal chick-rearing, a good role-model for human society.


They enjoy dustbaths in a small depression they have created by scratching for seed:


If I get too close, they scuttle off, or even make a stab at flying short distances with their vestigial flight feathers:


(The adults are powerful fliers. Yesterday I scared four adults, who then flew right across my 6-acre meadow into the tops of the distant trees.)

The whole group moved on to a new food source:


Leaving one adult standing guard on the stone wall:


Until they were all safe and she too moved on:



PS: Turkey populations are a notable conservation success story, having recovered from a low of 30,000 in 1930 to about 7 million today, a remarkable comeback spearheaded by early conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt.

PPS The males are much more dramatic in appearance, but I never see them on my land in the summer.  I am hoping to see one in the fall, in which case he will appear in this blog!

Sawbills and goosanders

A family of Common Mergansers, Mergus merganser, swam past my dock yesterday.


They nest in holes in mature trees near large lakes, and the chicks leap to the ground from the hole. They are in the water and eating fish by about 12 days.

They hunt by sight, so the mother sticks her head in the water looking for fish.


The chicks quickly learn to copy her:


The word “merganser” comes from the Latin  mergo (to dip, immerse) + anser (goose), and indeed in English they are also known as goosanders, because they are a large waterbird that dives. These ones had already started diving, in a very disorganized splashy sort of way!


Their common name of sawbill derives from the fact that their beaks are serrated, with a wicked hook on the end, for catching and holding onto slippery fish.

Red-necked grebes

This chick is clearly hungry!


Off they went, cruising along the shoreline in the sun.

Red-necked grebes

PS Common Mergansers are widespread in Europe and North America. They migrate northwards to breed, but in Maine they are year-round residents.

PPS Thanks to Leigh and Peter for the ID! I stupidly fixated on grebes!

Ebony jewels

That glittering fairy fluttering in the dappled shade near the brook at this time of year is probably an Ebony Jewelwing,  Calopteryx maculata, a type of Broad-winged Damselfly. The body is 40-50mm long, and this one is  a male, with an iridescent turquoise body and ebony black wings and eyes. Look closely, and you can even see how the wings attach to the thorax.


This one is a female: browner, and with a white spot on the wing tips.


They eat small insects: this guy has just caught one:


And a few minutes later the banquet is well under way, with the spiky bits discarded:


The nymph stage lives in slow-moving streams, so the adults are typically found close to water, in sunny openings on low shrubs. As you might expect given their habitats, they in their turn are eaten by both land and water predators, such as birds, bats, turtles, larger fish.

The scientific name Calopteryx comes from the Greek “kalos” (beautiful) + “pteron” (wing or feather), and maculata comes from the Latin “macula” (a spot) – a reference to the white spot near the tip of the female’s wing. They are found throughout eastern North America.

The rodent hotel

My geographical focus is now quite different.  For those of you who don’t know me, I’m now where I live in the summer, in Maine in New England, top-right-hand corner of the USA, where I provide food and shelter for a variety of rodents.

My main battle is fighting the marauding groundhogs, who have eaten my garden down to naked stubs. This is what remains of a large clump of hollyhocks that I  have been nurturing for years:


And this is one of the culprits. Luckily roses seem to be one of the few things he doesn’t eat.:


While I was deadheading the roses in the foreground, a white-tailed fawn (still spattered with white spots, just like Bambi) almost ran me over: very sweet. but quite voracious. Its mother has taught it that my garden offers a top-notch buffet.

The most obvious inhabitants of my garden are the aggressively territorial red squirrels. They are unrelated to our wimpy UK reds, and chatter loudly at each other and me if we overstep the mark.


But I like watching them groom:


And forage for good dried grass for their nest inside my shed:


where they store and eat their stash of hickory nuts in the winter:


And when the day is done, a drink out of the birdbath, and a brief hangout on the rim:


Do two swallows make a summer?

On a final casual walk through the fields, Sherborne’s rich birdlife could be heard in the hedgerows and seen on the wires. All these were photographed in one field in around five minutes, thanks to the convenient power lines passing overhead. These are a yellowhammer, a linnet, and a chaffinch.

And a European Goldfinch:


American readers may be confused by this, since the American Goldfinch, Spinus tristis, is quite different. This one was photographed in Maine.

Male goldfinch

The Sherborne one is the same one immortalized in paint by Fabritius in 1654, Carduelis carduelis: 


I have said goodbye to the swallows in the cloisters:


They’re busily feeding three chicks, sometimes landing on top of each other in their rush to complete their food deliveries:


The chicks are still almost naked with a fuzzy halo of incipient feathers:



And always hungry:

DSC00727No more from England till the autumn… I’m off to Maine on my annual migration.

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