Field Notes: Right Under the Naturalist’s Nose

fence lizard

The story goes that once someone asked a dedicated naturalist where he had gone on his vacation. The reply was that he had just stayed at home. The next question was “Oh, how was that?” and the naturalist replied, “Great. I got half the way across my backyard!”

That amusing tale was not on my mind as the bright sunlight of the April morning coaxed me out on the south porch as a steamy mist showed me that the heavy dew was evaporating. However, I do try to keep observant.

“Oh my,” I said to myself as the enjoyable moment was interrupted by the annual spring buzzing of a few carpenter bees along the side of my house. You see, I like these bees as part of nature and my surroundings, but the females chew nesting tunnels into my hemlock siding and that I do not like.

I slipped on some shoes and headed across the grassy path to a storage building about 100 feet away where I keep my butterfly nets. I grabbed one and headed back to the house, but after five steps toward the house I happened to glance down on the path where a small hole had caught my attention; a finger-size hole in the soil among the grass on my path. Hmmm, better check it. Yep, to my surprise, a close inspection showed the entrance to the hole was skillfully lined with silk. Not too many animals can make silk, but some that do are spiders. And not many spiders dig deep holes in soil. But the one that can happens to be the one I had been looking for more than eight years.

I dropped the net to mark the spot and rounded up a trowel, stout pencil and my Swiss Army knife. After probing with a blade of grass, nothing appeared from the burrow. With great anticipation, and with the pencil in the hole to prevent collapse, I used a tried-and-true technique to carefully excavate a small pit parallel to the silken hole. On my hands and knees, it took me some time to work my way down; breaking into the burrow occasionally to detect the bottom. After 19-centimeters (7.5-inches – I measured), there she was, waiting for me — and she was mad.

Out of more than 800 species of spiders in Pennsylvania, only three belong to the group that most people know of as tarantulas (more primitive, generally large, and non-web-building). One of these, the folding-door spider (Antrodiaetus unicolor) was my quarry. This is not a hand-sized giant, but with a body about an inch long, it is still one of the larger spiders around. Usually the entrances to their burrows are closed during the daytime with a “door,” composed of a small woven mat of silk and debris. Thus, they can be hard to find. For some reason, her door was missing. I nudged her into a container and found my camera.

I consider myself a veteran naturalist, yet also a constant student. After looking for a folding-door spider in many places, including other states, here it was all along, at home, hiding right under the naturalist’s nose.

Charles Bier is the senior conservation scientist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

To hear an audio version of Charles Bier’s Field Notes visit iTunes to download free podcasts of his personal accounts and observations of Western Pennsylvania’s natural environment.