Late last year I wrote in this blog about a spider (Steotoda nobilis) which was living in our bathroom and which we came to call Lassie. Concerned about Lassie’s apparently self-destructive diet regime we gave her a square meal and observed her return to prime condition. As winter progressed through January her appearances became less frequent and soon her web became redundant. We assume that she crawled away and found a new home outside, perhaps in the nearby shed where Luke and I noticed by torchlight one night that several more of her species were riding out the winter, lurking in the gaps under the roof.
A quite different spider came to our attention more recently, this time in the kitchen. As with our previous visitor, we had to gaze upwards to find it – clinging onto the ceiling. However this spider is rather more familiar by sight to most of us, owing to its distinctive, very slender frame and its common occurrence most times of the year in places that can’t quite be reached by the duster. It goes by several common names, eg. cobweb spider, cellar spider and daddy long-legs, although more punctilious arachnologists would call it Pholcus phalangioides. It is a native spider, widespread in England and Wales but less so in northern Britain. It almost always occurs in houses and other buildings where it finds the shelter and climate to its liking; the year-round stability of cellars is particularly favoured.
Pholcus phalangioides in typical pose, enjoying the tactile experience of our kitchen ceiling.
It makes a messy-looking, 3-dimensional web, often up where the wall meets the ceiling, but also in undisturbed spaces behind cupboards, the telly, the toilet (especially at the volunteers’ chalet at RSPB Arne), under the bath, etc. Here it hangs, more or less upside down and motionless by day, keeping itself to itself. At night it may wander off and settle somewhere new or at least stroll around a bit and take up a slightly different position in the web.
The one we originally spotted in the kitchen didn’t stay put for long, neither did the one which I transferred (for its own safety) from the bathroom to the living room. Hopefully it has settled down somewhere comfortable and out of reach of the weekly incursions by the vacuum cleaner. I might recommend the top of the bookcase, alongside the abandoned fez, the cormorant wood-carving and the old Argos catalogue, which provides a commanding view of both the telly and the Radipole reserve through the window.
For me, the most extraordinary thing about this species was what I learned of its predatory capability. As you would expect they catch small insects and woodlice which stray into the web (they are particularly useful in helping to keep mosquitos down at the aforementioned Arne chalet) and when times are hard they don’t dismiss cannibalism. The surprising thing is the fact that they can tackle other more robust spiders including Tegenaria species – the alarmingly big house spiders which you occasionally find stranded in the bath, or lurking in the dark corner of the tool shed or brazenly scuttling across the floor during the Ten O’clock News.
As the picture shows, Pholcus phalangioides is a pretty fragile looking creature which you would reasonably expect to come second best every time in hand-to-hand combat with an adversary like a house spider. However, it relies more on guile than brawn to get through the trials of life and triumphs in such confrontations thanks to its web. Apparently, even a large spider, once it has carelessly wandered into the web and got stuck, is immobilised enough for the Pholcus to skillfully sling more threads over it using those long legs and thus subdue it further. It then delivers its venomous bite to an accessible part of its prey’s anatomy and waits for it to take effect.
Pholcus phalangioides has unwittingly been implicated in an often repeated modern myth which tells us that the daddy long-legs has one of the most deadly venoms but we are only saved from being killed in our beds because it hasn’t any fangs with which to inflict a fatal bite. It is hard to know where and how the myth originated, as the common name daddy long-legs is used not only for this spider, but also the crane fly and the harvestman. Of the last two, the former is a slender non-venomous insect with non-biting mouthparts, dangly legs and no apparent sense of direction when seen flying dementedly around your kitchen light in the late summer. The latter is a close relative of true spiders which deftly stalks the woodland floor on impossibly thin legs, spins no silk and has no venom or fangs.
The myth can be pooh-poohed as it has no scientific basis – the venom of Pholcus phalangioides is not known to be especially potent – although if you are a small blundering insect or indeed a hulking great house spider, don’t expect a confrontation with this spindly chap to be a walkover.
North Hide on Radipole has provided some pretty amazing birds over the past few weeks and there is virtually always something of note to hold one's attention. The much publicised glossy ibises seem settled into Radipole life and North Pool is a favoured haunt allowing the capture of images such as Luke's beauty below.
The kingfisher pair seemed to get a bit carried away with some unseasonably warm days in February and allowed Spring Fever to take a temporary hold. Now on the cusp of April and in glorious sunshine everything is progressing as expected with fish passes a regular event to seal their bond.
The marsh harriers, (seemingly the same pair that bred last year) are also regularly in close proximity to the hide and can make for spectacular viewing - although not always from the point of view of our wildfowl. And, on the subject of wildfowl, Sunday saw our first Garganey of the spring mingling close to the still 40 strong raft of teal.
Garganey are a summer visitor to the British Isles having migrated from Africa which is unique among British ducks. We are fairly confident that they have bred on the reserves in recent years - courtship and mating has been witnessed on many occasions - but this has never been proven. One of the reasons for this could be that having mated the strikingly marked male usually clears off and the female retreats into the darkest, knotted recesses of dense wet vegetation and remains there until the young have fledged.
There is a water rail territory established in 'The Deeps' to the left of the hide and the squealing call and response now firmly a part of the background noise.
Mike Richards (rspb-images.com)
Added to all this there is stone chat, Cetti's and reed bunting territories all in close proximity to the hide so colour and vibrancy at every turn and never a dull moment... Guaranteed!!!
... Well first cuckoo flower anyway!
Returning from the North Hide this evening, the eagle-eyed Emblem-English, (or Chris to his many friends) made a welcome botanical discovery in the delicate shape of our very first cuckoo flower. I am sure that we all have certain things, particular to ourselves, which we most look forward to reacquainting ourselves with at this time of re-growth, regeneration, awakening and migration - and the first cuckoo flower is always, for me, a little bit special.
Cuckoo Flower, (also known as Lady’s Smock) is a still a fairly common herb with a large native range extending across Europe and into Asia. It is a lover of moist conditions as befits a relative of watercress with which it also shares the familiar bitter taste. Also, like its relative it provides a rich source of vitamin C, but more importantly it is the main food plant of the Orange Tip butterfly which time their single annual hatch to coincide with its flowering - so that is another harbinger of spring to keep an eye out for in coming weeks.
By flowering early it avoids competition with other much larger moisture loving plants, such as hemlock-water dropwort, willow herb or hemp agrimony to name but three. In medieval times it was believed that the plant was sacred to fairies and it was considered an ill omen to bring the flowers indoors. One might have thought that in medieval Britain there were more pressing daily concerns than fear of evoking ire in fairies, but at least they left the cuckoo flower to prosper and long may they continue to do so.
One of the signature birds of the Weymouth Wetlands is the Cetti’s warbler – a ‘little brown job’ with an ‘often heard seldom seen’ reputation for leading birders on a merry song and dance. Frequenting dense undergrowth into which their subtle plumage cannily blends, their presence is most often betrayed by their unmistakable detonation of song which is heard throughout the year, but most emphatically at this time.
If you don’t know what to listen out for the comprehensive ‘Birds of the Western Palearctic’ describes their song as “TCHItchitchirititchitchirtitchi” but, if that makes you go cross-eyed, just listen out for the short noisy staccato refrain and dollar for a dime there’ll be a Cetti’s at the end of it.
A Radipole Cetti's (sorry can't find a photo credit...)
Radipole and Lodmoor both provide plenty of dense, varied vegetation adjacent to water (aquatic invertebrates are a favoured food) which is the habitat favoured by Cetti’s. In recent years we were recording up to eighty Cetti’s territories in springtime, although the recent cold winters have seen these figures contract by at least one third.
Notwithstanding the recent drop in numbers, the Cetti’s success on both reserves is fairly remarkable. The species was first recorded in the UK in the 1960’s and there wasn’t a confirmed breeding until 1973. Radipole hosted the first Dorset breeding pair also in the 70’s and has become a nationwide hotspot over the intervening decades – which may be because, (in spite of the references above to their skulking nature) the Cetti’s on Radipole and Lodmoor can actually be quite confiding. Perhaps this could be a result of much of their favoured habitat lying adjacent to our paths, thus making lumbering bipeds a familiar and mostly benign presence to them.
Now is as good a time as any to see them, as the biological necessities of the season further emboldens them and there are still very few leaves on the thorns and brambles to obscure them from our gaze. You may even find that rumours of their reserve have been greatly exaggerated!
The plants are beginning to move and show themselves as the days are getting longer. As I walked through Radipole this morning I came across a patch of Sweet Violets in full flower. This is our only fragrant violet.
Next was a hawthorn tree in full leaf. On closer inspection there were flower buds nearly ready to burst among the hawthorn leaves.
Nearby the blackthorn blossom is starting to come into flower providing a stark contrast with the dark twigs and branches. The flowers always appear before the leaves
In the hedgerow the goat willow buds were starting to burst along the branches.
By the path the Lesser Celandines are coming into flower. An easily recognised member of the Buttercup Family with its glossy green heart shaped leaves and waxy yellow flowers.
Down by the Visitor Centre the umbels of the Alexanders are emerging. The large glossy dark green leaves are in threes and this is the first of the Umbellifer Family to start flowering.
Nearby a very early Cow Parsley is also beginning to flower. Late April is the normal flowering time for this species. The leaves of the Cow Parsley have been appearing around the reserve since January.
Over on Lodmoor a large patch of Coltsfoot is starting to bloom along the verge. The flowers always appear before the leaves. Coltsfoot is one of the earliest plants to flower and one of the heralds of spring.
Also flowering on Lodmoor is one of the smaller plants, the Ground Ivy with its blue violet flowers is starting to make an appearance by the paths. It won't be long now when the Weymouth Wetlands is once again awash with flowers.