Winter Widow

The story begins with a fruit smoothie. Smoothies have become a morning ritual in our household. I cut the pineapple. Brenda peels the banana and plucks grapes from a bunch purchased from our local supermarket. Living in Northern Ontario we are used to having Costa Rica as a source for pineapples and California for grapes.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Hitchhiker specimen in a bunch of grapes.

Brenda is a big fan of spiders and snakes but she does not like surprises. Summer shrieks in the garden tell me she has encountered a snake- usually a garter snake. We have no venomous snakes in Northern Ontario. As I was standing by the patio door window, observing our bird feeder, I again heard one of those familiar summer shrieks. This time it was because she spotted a black widow spider hiding in the grapes.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Hitchhiker specimen in a bunch of grapes.

Black widows are easy to identify, with their distinctive red hourglass patterns on their abdomens of the females. This one was still alive, having spent the last couple of weeks in refrigeration. And of course, she is highly venomous. Bug Guide.net identified her from my description as likely to be a Western black widow Latrodectus Hesperus.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Hitchhiker specimen in a bunch of grapes.

I called our local science center who said they could not take her and advised me to contact Health Canada instead. But I then decided to go it alone and I set up a small plastic enclosure after doing some research on the internet. This article seemed to be just what I needed https://bit.ly/38oK57O I drilled a hole in a small block of wood, inserted a twig snipped from a bush, put sand in the bottom of the plastic cage and added a small sponge soaked with water. In went the spider. Shortly she began constructing a web in the twig and was later observed resting comfortably on the twig.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Female resting on her web
Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Female resting on her web

What to feed her? A friend suggested crickets and sure enough the local pet food store informed me they had small crickets for sale at 0.20 each. The author of the on-line article suggested the same thing. In went the crickets and a day later we discovered she had successfully hunted one of them.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Female feeding on captured cricket
Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Female in web with captured cricket

Of course, my main motive in this exercise is to try and obtain photos of the spider. Coincidentally I had recently ordered the Venus Optics twin macro flash system from B&H https://bhpho.to/38vnFl0 to pair with my Laowa 100 mm macro lens from Venus Optics . I also use Nikon’s 105 mm micro, often combined with the Nikon TC 14 teleconverter. The dual flash system worked well with this lens also.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus Hesperus) Female resting on her web after feeding

I discovered that I was able to photograph the spider in her classic web poses without having to disturb her by trying to lift the block of wood/twig (likely with tongs) out of her pen. This was a real bonus. Further, I found I could use my tripod for better stability, with the spider enclosure resting on our kitchen counter. The flashes do a very nice job and the backgrounds are unobtrusive. I tried using a simple tracing paper diffuser solution recommended by a macro photographer, found on YouTube https://youtu.be/8JbJzENXjz8. Another diffuser solution is offered in this YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czpEEFwPovI This is a bit more labour intensive but will be more likely to be a more practical outdoors lighting solution for small animals in the garden. For now this ‘winter widow’ will be my main macro subject.

Dip Snack!

Brenda and I are foreigners when it comes to wildlife encounters in the deep south. We’re used to blackflies and black bears but not cactus and venomous snakes. I suppose common sense should work well- stay on the path and stay alert, but inexperience can lead to potential trouble. While our main objective in South Texas was bird photography I did hope to supplement my species list with non avian subjects like tarantula, horned lizard, scorpion and/or rattlesnake, so long as things were done safely.

A tarantula photographed under controlled conditions at Hardy Jackson's ranch

A tarantula photographed under controlled conditions at Hardy Jackson’s ranch

It was our fourth day of Sue Jarrett’s South Texas Birding Safari in Steve Bentsen and Hardy Jackson’s bird blinds. Steve is the guide and owner of Dos Venadas ranch and Hardy along with his mom Nora Nell run the Campos Viejos ranch. Both these ranches are beautifully set up for photographing birds and other critters that might visit their ponds. It was late in the day at Dos Venadas when we decided to start packing equipment to meet Steve in his ATV for the ride back to our vehicle. About an hour earlier we listened to green jays and other birds- at least five species- causing a raucous commotion in the tree beside our blind. I guessed they were annoyed at the presence of a potential predator such as a snake or an owl, but we could see nothing in the tree.

Bathing cardinals are highlights of the South Texas bird photography tours.

Bathing cardinals are highlights of the South Texas bird photography tours.

We did not look under the tree. Coiled under the tree beside the path out was an enormous diamondback rattlesnake. I was within a metre and about to walk right by her when I caught the movement of the snake pulling her head back. I froze. I gingerly stepped back and informed Brenda behind me what I had encountered. To my horror she approached me, flicking her tongue. Then she retreated to the coiled position. Once I felt out of danger I whipped out my iPhone to send a text message to Steve. After all there appeared to be a photo opportunity developing.

The snake alerted me to her presence near the path by pulling back her head

The snake alerted me to her presence near the path by pulling back her head

My text to Steve was intended to inform him of the coiled diamondback. In the excitement of the encounter I did not pay attention to the body of my text message before pressing Send. I thought I had typed “Big diamondback near the path by the hose. Coiled”

In his reply Steve queried “Dip Snack?”. Time for a head slap. The smart phone’s Auto Correct feature had changed ‘Diamondback’ to ‘Dip Snack’. Steve was wondering what I meant by a coiled dip snack. “Diamondback” I replied, this time making sure the iPhone did not override my spelling. “OK. Coming” he replied.

Steve (a practicing veternarian and experienced photographer/naturalist) figured the snake was female, one of the biggest that he has encountered. She was too large to handle with his snake tongs. Fortunately she was fairly docile and came back to the edge of the path so the rest of the participants could get some pictures in the fading light. She never displayed any aggression or tail rattling. Probably this was one of her regular ambush locales for nabbing unwary prey coming down the path to the small pond near the blind.

The snake crawled back to this position and the other tour photographers got some shots.

The snake crawled back to this position and the other tour photographers got some shots.

After all, we were warned by the birds.

Milkweed Garden

Brenda found another monarch chrysalis a few days ago, hanging from a cucumber leaf. It is late in the season and most of the milkweeds are going to seed. Frost is threatening so we hope the adult will emerge in time. Summer of 2013 was a relatively poor year for us on the monarch butterfly front, with noticeably fewer adults seen flitting around our milkweed patch and fewer caterpillars observed chewing milkweed leaves and flowers. These observations jive with disquieting reports in the media about plummeting monarch numbers province wide, with fingers pointed at the usual suspects- habitat loss and agribiz practices along the monarch’s migration routes.

Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. chrysallis

Milkweed is classified as a noxious weed in Ontario. I innocently brought a seed case home a few years ago. The seeds are so darn photogenic. Because the Sudbury Region’s soils are acidic (great for blueberries, not good for milkweed) there are few populations of common milkweed in our area. It has thrived near our garden. Now we have a burgeoning patch of milkweed, which invades our garden and lawn, but we pull and mow when necessary and let it thrive since it is the host plant for the beautiful and famous monarch butterfly. This January, Brenda and I will touring to California where we will participate in Cathy and Gordon Illg’s Beauty and the Beasts Photo Tour that will include two days photographing monarchs in their western winter refuge.

Canadian Plants (Ontario)

Even though milkweed is noxious it is attractive to us in so many ways. The flowers are lovely and fragrant. Milkweed attracts many other small critters that feed and live among the plants- hummingbird moths, other butterfly species, spiders and beetles. And of course it is the host plant for the monarch.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Flowers

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Flowers

Here are some favourites from over the past few years. Most were made with a 200 mm Nikkor micro. I prefer soft, overcast light.

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