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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

The Nature Channel Through The Window

I’ve been living in San Diego for three weeks, and I’ve seen more wildlife in that timespan than I would have ever thought possible after moving to “the city.” One of the first nights Andy and I were in the new house, we heard this awful racket coming from outside. On going outside to check, two cat-sized critters scampered in opposite directions out of sight along the fence between our house and the apartment next door, one stopping behind a tall shrub (that goes higher than the fence line). I eased my way around the side, but it being dark, I could barely make out what it was, so I sent Andy inside to grab a flashlight while I kept an eye on its position. As I watched, it crawled into the shrub and perched on a branch to turn around and look at me, but I still couldn’t quite make out the shape. Andy got back with the flashlight and, on shining it into the bush, I was met with the beady black eyes and grey snout of a possum, sitting mouselike on its haunches in the middle of the shrub.

A couple of nights later we’d just gotten home and begun making the rounds opening the windows. One of the larger windows in the living room opens out onto what I guess would be called the backyard, where there’s a fig tree, which has made for some excellent bird watching. But just as I lifted the blinds I saw something dart towards the house with a little to-and-fro motion and out of sight. The motion detector light wasn’t on, so all I saw was a greyish blur and, based on that and the motion, my best guess was we had a rabbit of some sort living under the house. I kept an eye out for a few nights to see if I could ever catch a peak at it, but nothing appeared, until earlier this week. We get pretty bad cell reception inside the house, so when we’re on the phone for more than few minutes we usually pace the L of sidewalk that runs down the side and around the back of the house (and along the edge of the grassy area with the fig tree). Well, Andy comes darting around the house one night while he’s on the phone telling me to go look under the fig tree, and lo and behold, there’s a skunk munching on some fallen figs (and they’re quite good, so I don’t blame him). We’ve seen it every night for the past couple of nights, and it’s begun to make its way around to the front side of the house several times while we were outside, only to hear us and turn tail (without spraying anything, thankfully) to head back into its den. I can only assume he’s heading for the garden that one of our neighbors planted in the rear of the front yard area.

So with all this wildlife surrounding us in the middle of the city, I’ve been reading a bit about the two. Possums I’m familiar with, having seen ’em all my life, but I had no idea that when a possum (technically opossum— possums without the o are native to australia and surrounding areas) is “playing possum,” it isn’t playing anything. They actually go limp and unconscious as an involuntary response to stress. And as for skunks, despite their reputation, they’re actually fairly reluctant to spray. They only have enough scent for five or six sprays, and it takes ten days to regenerate a supply. Good news to my ears. Thanks, Wikipedia!

But, while it’s been interesting watching the foraging patterns of a possum and a skunk, the most fascinating wildlife watching I’ve been doing is a bit creepier. There’re two trees about eight feet apart right outside the front door, and between the two there’s been a spider keeping house. A couple of days ago, I noticed a huge dragonfly, about the size of my middle finger, that had just gotten stuck in the web. Its wings had already been torn and tangled, but it was still thrashing around trying to escape and making them worse in the process. Andy and I went out for a bit, and just as we came back the spider, about the size of a penny, was stepping onto the now only twitching and almost totally wingless dragonfly. It perched on the back of the dragonfly’s head and abdomen for a while, but I couldn’t get close enough to see if it was just testing the waters or injecting it with venom, because the web’s just above head height. Eventually it started make quick but seemingly random circles around the body, going nearly the length of the body, then trying once or twice around the middle, then changing direction, etc. I figured it’d take a while for the spider to make any progress, so I decided to come back out and check on it later.

In the few hours that passed, the spider apparently gave up on spinning its massive catch and simply ate the whole thing, its body now swollen to the size of a quarter and perched perfectly still on the web next to the empty shell of the dragonfly. It had eaten through the bottom of the body and completely cleaned out the inside, as well as the gone though the top of the head, doing the same there. The next morning, all evidence, including the spiderweb, was gone. The dragonfly had done some damage, but it looks to me like the spider simply mopped it all up and started afresh with a new web. I went out yesterday to smoke a cigarette while waiting on Andy to get ready so we could head out to Ray at Night, and my eight-legged friend was dangling in midair from a single line attached to one long thread strung between the two trees. He repeatedly went up and down, up and down, getting almost to the grass and then high-tailing it all the way back up to his base-line. Eventually he landed on the grass, wrapped the silk-thread around a single blade of grass a few times, severed the connection, promptly marched right back to the line spanning the trees, and proceeded down it to wrap another line around the tree limb and stretch it along the other one. I figured out (or, at least I think I figured out) that the reason he kept going up and down is that he was waiting for the wind to die so he could plum-line straight down and anchor the spanning line in the best place. And I can only guess that he kept going back and forth because it’s safer to be close to home than just dangling in midair with four feet of thread to traverse in case he needs to run from a swooping bird or a nosy human. Fascinating stuff, though. I’m going to see if I can identify the spider tomorrow based on a spot or web pattern, as he’s already set up another, much more dense and compact web on the side of one of the trees.

Oh, and I stumbled across this neat post from the Neurophilosophy blog that concisely covers everything from the structure of a spider’s nervous system to the evolution of and recent discoveries about the method with which they spin silk. So that’s my learnin’ ’bout them.

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Filed under: Tangents

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