Lilliputian Lichen

Cup lichen leaf and mossThe diminutive communities created by lichens and mosses have always fascinated me. These cup lichen have colonized a piece of driftwood in our garden (click to enlarge photo).

Science Note: lichen are a symbiotic partnership* between fungus and algae (sometimes cyanobacteria). The fungus provides a “house” for the algae, protecting it against drought and ultraviolet light. The algae produce sugars to feed them both.

*It could be that the fungus is “holding” the algae against its will. It refused to comment for this article.

On Leaves and Seeds (or Rethinking Fall Cleanup)

My little corner of the earth is slipping towards its winter nap. Leaves are falling, flowers fading, and everything is looking just a bit unkempt. (More so than normal anyway–my garden has never quite achieved the opposite of unkempt!) Despite the ragged edges, I won’t be rushing out with clippers and rakes. That’s because the fallen leaves and ragged stems that look untidy to us are gold for backyard wildlife. This sad-looking brown-eyed susan has been crawling with hungry goldfinches this week. (Click to enlarge photo.)

brown eyed susan seed heads

Instead of trimming seed heads and discarding them, I leave them as a food source over the winter. In my yard they are especially appreciated by the aforementioned goldfinches and by pine siskins. In addition to being ready-made (and free) bird food, they have interesting shapes and patterns I have come to appreciate. (Click to enlarge photos.)

monarda seed head

fall fluff

lemon balm seeds

It’s the same story with leaves, I leave them undisturbed everywhere I possibly can. I enjoy watching the towhees skritch, skritch, skritch through the leaf litter in the winter as they hunt for tasty morsels. Their double foot “hop-scratch” is pretty wonderful. “My” chubby fox sparrows are leaf litter hunters as well.

fall leaves

So, skip the tidying where you can. Sit out under the trees and raise a glass of cider to fall’s untidy beauty.

All Set for Winter

Today I set up our backyard feeding station. The chickadees were our first visitors. We feed black oil sunflower and suet. We are also trying out a new mix of nuts, corn, and sunflower seeds–special treats for the squirrels and jays.

hanging feeder

Check out this new ball-shaped feeder. Can’t wait to see the squirrels get their little paws on this one.

ball feeder

You don’t have to go spending a lot of money to set up a feeder station. We build ground feeders out of leftover lumber and screen door screening. I make hanging feeders out of old orange juice cartons. The birds don’t seem to mind!

OJ feeder

When setting up a feeding station, don’t forget to leave the leaves wherever possible. They are home to lots of invertebrates, which your feathered friends will hunt for throughout the winter.

leave the leaves

Spider Safari 2014

I know Halloween is over a month away, but for me, September is the month for spiders. It’s a little like spring for bird watchers. Adults are at their “attract a mate” best, making them easy to spot and interesting to observe.

The first spider I spotted was this large (about 2 inches across), handsome male grass spider.

Male grass spider. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Male grass spider. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

The dried-up front lawn teems with little wolf spiders. Some skittered up the side of the house.

Female wolf spider. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Female wolf spider. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Most spiders I observe throughout the year come and go. A few manage to survive long enough in one spot to receive a name. This year we have Freida, a female grass spider, living in an impressive funnel in a garden box next to the garage. She wouldn’t come out for photos today.

Frieda the grass spider's house. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Frieda the grass spider’s house. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Our worm bin hosts many cobweb weavers. These spiders typically have round abdomens and prefer dark places. This lovely female is guarding four egg cases.

Cobweb weaver and egg cases. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Cobweb weaver and egg cases. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

If you looked closely, you may have noticed that she is not just guarding egg cases, but spiderlings as well.

Egg case and spiderlings. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Egg case and spiderlings. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

My favorite September spiders are the Araneus Diadematus, or European Cross spiders. These are the beauties that build the big orb webs around the garden in the autumn.

Araneus diadematus. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Araneus diadematus. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Today’s Lesson

Know how to tell a male spider from a female? Here’s a little spidery lesson for you. You know that spiders have eight legs, four on each side. If you look closely, you will see that the also have what look like two short legs in front. These are called pedipalps, often shortened to palps.

Can you spot the palps? Click to enlarge.

Can you spot the palps? Click to enlarge.

Female spiders, like the wolf spider in the photo above, have palps that are short and straight. They are mostly used for carrying and maneuvering prey. This is also true for immature males. Mature males have palps that have little round knobs on the ends, almost like little boxing gloves. They are part of the male spider reproductive system.

Male cobweb weaver. Can you spot the palps? Click to enlarge.

Male cobweb weaver. Can you spot the palps? Click to enlarge.

So, there you go. Now you know how to tell a male spider from a female!