spider, feather, frog: 3 little notes on gender (and wonder) in nature

I GOT ON A BIT of a gender kick recently on Instagram, and I blame it on a spider (and a turkey, and a frog)—and also on my endless curiosity. It happened like this:

along came a she-spider

ALONG came a spider the other afternoon, specifically an impressive female garden orb weaver, Argiope aurantia—an extremely widespread species, from southern Canada down to Costa Rica and most of the lower 48 between.

And I say female with a degree of confidence, because of her size (a female of this species can be up to three times a male’s) and also because of the big web she had made.

See that zig-zag stuff in her web? It’s called stabilimenta (word of the day; singular is stabilimentum) and if you get a chance to see the locomotion she gets going to make it, it’s very cool. Whether the zig-zags simply reinforce the web or also help in other ways, such as with prey attraction or advertising to birds not to fly into webs, has been the subject of various research efforts.

More crazy details: I read that the spider eats the web and makes a new one each night. And one reader told me, after I published this story, that Argiope is also called the writing spider.

what tom left behind

WHAT TOM left behind (left to right, above): one tail feather and one wing feather from an adult male turkey. How do I know where these feathers fitted onto their former owner’s plumage, and that the bird who lost them was a male and an adult? The United States Fish & Wildlife Service Feather Atlas is a cool tool for such IDs. Visit it, and be prepared to get lost in geeky exploration.

One tech note: The search box up top left at the Feather Atlas sometimes doesn’t work for me, so I often start here, on the search page—reachable from the “search scans” navigation button up top, and then just type in a common name like “turkey” or “robin” or even “warbler.” Or I use the “browse scans” button up in the navigation to just have a look around by family of birds (which has the side benefit of teaching me a little avian taxonomy).

If you have no idea whose feather you saw, there is a tool for narrowing your selection by pattern and color and such characteristics.

An important addendum: It is illegal to collect feathers, even from dead birds—a violation of federal law to pick them up and take them home from where you find them. Have a look, take a photo, and leave them be.

frog girl

A YOUNG frog girl perches on lip of a water-filled trough outside my kitchen door (photo, top of page). I say “girl” because of the size of her typanum, the flat membrane behind her eye that is an external hearing mechanism. A frogboy’s tympanum is bigger than his eye; frog girl’s is equal to or smaller than her eye.

Another tipoff if one is inclined to try to sex a frog is the white throat; boys in the green frog species (Rana clamitans, or Lithobates clamitans), and also in bullfrogs where I live (R. catesbiana or L. catesbeianus) take on yellow throat coloration, especially vivid in mating season. Ribbiting, huh?

These are just tiny bits of marvel that can reveal themselves if we indulge our curiosity outdoors—if we take a few extra minutes to really observe, and ask what is going on and who that is and why, oh why?

learn more about the ‘wild’ in your garden 9/15/18 at my place

I’M HOSTING a workshop on how to up the ante of “wildness” in your garden–more beneficials like pollinators and birds and frogs–on September 15, 2018, in Copake Falls, NY, with an ecologist and field botanist friend to guide us. Interested? More about it on this other page.

just a few good places to look stuff up

  • BugGuide.net (insect and spider ID)
  • Animal Diversity Web (University of Michigan Museum of Zoology)
  • All About Birds (Cornell Lab of Ornithology); just enter a bird name and get a profile with life history, range maps, more
  • The Feather Atlas
  • Field guides (I have a separate bookcase full of them, including those below)
FIREFLIES, GLOW-WORMS AND LIGHTNING BUGS, by Lynn Frierson Faust (Eastern and Central U.S. and Canada), is both charmingly written and technically expert, awakening us to their diversity.
SWIFT GUIDE TO BUTTERFLIES: By Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association. A fully revised photo-driven butterfly ID tool. Even an easy photo-driven index.
THE NATURALIST'S NOTEBOOK by Nathaniel Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich is a guide to being a better observer of nature in every season, with a 5-year blank calendar-journal at the back to call your own.
GARDEN INSECTS of North America (Princeton): Whitney Cranshaw and David Shetlar's comprehensive, easy-to-use reference is a gardener's must-have tool; now fully revised (Dec. 2017).
SPIDERS AND THEIR KIN is a tiny treasure, a little book that will get you understanding and appreciating these incredibly important creatures, and even beginning to ID the major groups. Best $7ish ever spent.
PETERSON REFERENCE GUIDE TO SPARROWS OF NORTH AMERICA, by Rick Wright, helps you get to know "your" sparrows (and juncos and towhees).
PETERSON GUIDE TO WOODPECKERS: Learn from a longtime conservationist and woodpecker expert why most species are mainly black and white, and how they evolved to withstand all that hammering and much more, plus in-depth species profiles.
COMMON SPIDERS OF NORTH AMERICA: Want to get really serious about spiders? This is the book, richly illustrated and packed with learning: ID hints, native ranges, even behavioral insights into different species.
BETTER BIRDING: Not a field guide, but a science-heavy guide to how pros observe birds using contextual cues, from senior staffers of eBird.org and American Birding Association. Includes raptors; sea, water and shorebirds; birds of the woodland edge; etc. Science-heavy.
COMMON LICHENS is an intimate look at these not-plants, not-animals that are essential to Earth's health.
MAMMALS OF NORTH AMERICA: Who knew I lived alongside 52 species of mammals of America's 462 total?
TRACKS AND SIGN OF INSECTS by Charley Eiseman demystifies all the lumps and bumps and squiggles and webs you see outdoors and ask, "What's that?"
KAUFMAN FIELD GUIDE TO BUTTERFLIES of North America: Probably the only butterfly book you'll ever need, plus easy to use.
KAUFMAN GUIDE TO INSECTS, a perfect overall guide to representative insects of every major group, with biology and life histories.
WEEDS OF NORTH AMERICA (Chicago University Press): the continent's 500 most troublesome plants, identifiable in all their life stages, seed to maturity.
DRAGONFLIES AND DAMSELFLIES of the West (Princeton University Press), Dennis Paulson's ode to Western odonates.
TREES OF WESTERN NORTH AMERICA, from Princeton: 630 native and naturalized species, ID'd and profiled.
TREES OF EASTERN NORTH AMERICA, from Princeton, with 825 native and naturalized species ID'd and profiled.
THE SIBLEY FIELD GUIDE TO BIRDS of Eastern North America is my daily go-to for confirming who's who out there. By David Sibley.
THE SIBLEY GUIDE TO BIRDS, the current master work of North American birds, written and illustrated by David Sibley.
DRAGONFLIES AND DAMSELFLIES of the East (Princeton Field Guides) by Dennis Paulson, an ode to the Eastern odonates.
PETERSON FIELD GUIDE TO MOTHS of Northeastern North America is an eye-opener for anyone who thought only butterflies were interesting.
HAWKS IN FLIGHT by Pete Dunne and colleagues, a look into the world of raptors--their ID, and life histories.
BARK: A FIELD GUIDE to Trees of the Northeast, by Michael Wojtech, teaches ID by bark, and also what bark does and how it evolved.
  1. Your post is ribbiting! I have many of the field guides you have shown here. I wish I had them all.
    I love seeing those big ole spiders in the garden. Spiders are beginning to do their fall spinning. Busy busy in the garden. I so enjoy the tidbits of knowledge you share here. They often lead me down the rabbit hole.

  2. Tracey says:

    Thank you for your field guide list at the end of your article. I live in Germany. Have any good recommendations for field guides here written in English?
    I also was not aware of the law in US not to collect feathers. Thanks for the tip!

  3. Deborah says:

    I always think I have every ID book I’ll ever need, (three book shelves plus), and then you post a list that has something new that I MUST have! :) Thank you.

  4. Diane says:

    In my younger, less compassionate days, I’d throw a grasshopper against Argiope’s web, and watch in fascination as she would race to the struggling thing, wrap and wind it round and round, spinning it like a top with her many legs while extruding an imprisoning sticky rope, and there leave her wriggling dinner until she got hungry! I couldn’t do that now…

  5. Kirstey says:

    hi, I have an unrelated question but will leave it here as you suggest on the contact-me page :) I’m new to gardening and was wondering how I find good resources to buy from, besides my local nurseries? I’m thinking mail-order or online supplies? Thank you!

  6. Marianne says:

    Does anyone know how I can introduce or lure garden orb weavers to my garden? I had a lot of them where I used to live, but not a single orb weaver of any kind here. I do have a lot of other spiders.

  7. Carol Bakaj says:

    I, too, had that spider in my garden a few years ago. She (or he) would bounce on the web whenever we got close. I was very happy when I read that she (or he) wasn’t poisonous. I also was told by a friend that there were a lot of them in Pennsylvania where he came from. I’m in Connecticut and that year was the only time I’ve ever seen one.

  8. Amy says:

    I’ve got one of those spiders in my shade garden right now! I almost bumped into her while weeding. She is SO BIG. I was a little frightened and very, very impressed. Thanks for identifying her for me!

  9. Mary says:

    I hope this is as good as any place on your wonderful site to tell you thank you, Margaret. After finding our own little old house on a dirt road with 4 acres 5 years ago, I jumped into organic gardening head-first and full throttle, but didn’t discover you until last year. Your writing, podcast, and photos are a tonic that feeds my always-nature-hungry soul, always sending me off to look for or try something else. I just came in from our sweltering garden, patrolled around the border by a couple of hen turkeys with their chicks, all of them chasing grasshoppers as fast as they can. Baby frogs are appearing this week – tiny little guardians of the garden, hiding beneath the bean leaves…and of course, I’m crawling under there to get photos. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and perpetual sense of wonder with us.

  10. Sharon B. says:

    I saw my first Arrowhead orb spider this week. Much smaller than the beauty shown above, but with a distinctive bright yellow triangle arrowhead on its back. It was gone the next day, so perhaps it eats its nest every night, too, and moves on.

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