Everything is eating grasshoppers these days. Granted, they are abundant and full of protein, so it makes sense to take advantage of them. Last week near the dog town we found coyote scat, which isn’t strange, but instead of the usual hair and bones this scat was full of grasshopper exoskeletons—the heads and legs clearly visible and the color of the scat notably different. Yesterday I spotted a banded garden spider (read below) web in the main drainage of the canyon, a grasshopper both caught and neatly shrouded in spider web, ready for eating. Given that the grasshopper was at least half as big as the spider, the meal will certainly last a while. I haven’t sampled the grasshoppers myself this year, but previous bug roasts have yielded a nutty, popcorn-y flavor when cooked over a campfire.
In other bug news, the water dams in the canyon are still holding quite a bit of water, especially after the heavy storm on Tuesday night. On the surface of one pool there were thousands of insects. I expected them to be the familiar water skippers, but closer inspection revealed them to be both diving down into the water and using two predominant front legs. I’m not sure if they are water boatmen or backswimmers, but I suspect the latter. They dove when my shadow came over the pond but not when I threw a stick in to disturb the surface. The day before a backswimmer had landed on the hood of my car in the parking lot, and I was surprised at how colorful it was.
Spiders! Two especially have been visible lately—wolf spiders (Hogna carolinensis), which are showing up around 1.5-2” long, and a species I haven’t noticed much before, the banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata). They make a great comparison of spiders. The former blends in well to the gray pine needles and grass thatch and lives in inconspicuous but perfectly round holes in the ground. The latter is an orb weaver and so weaves round webs in the spaces between grass blades or shrub branches, catching flying insects. The dorsal (back) side of the spider has distinct yellow, tan, and white horizontal stripes, and the legs also have stripes in a series of tan and white rings. The ventral side, though, is entirely different, two bright yellow bands running vertically with black borders and 3-4 black spots lined up in the center. Since the spider is usually hanging partially upside-down in the web, this front side is visible more often. I wonder if the tri-fasciata of the name relates to the different “faces” at each side.
And a few bird notes…
One of the old, dead trees that had for years been a home for woodpecker nests has recently fallen down and yesterday I went to take a closer look. Sections of the mostly-hollow trunk have fallen away, revealing a neat cross-section of the inside of the tree. At least 4 woodpecker holes—one small, two medium, and one large—had been drilled into the trunk and below each hole were the remains of a nest, or even multiple nests built up over time. The nest below the largest hole was made mostly of sticks, while the smaller holes’ nests were more grass and other small debris. Each was at least 4 inches below the hole, with the longest hole-to-nest distance at 10 inches. I don’t know if the most recent occupants were actually woodpeckers or one of the many species of birds that uses old woodpecker cavities, but clearly the homes had been in use over several years.
We’ve also been keeping an eye on a pair of kestrels that like to sit in the top of a ponderosa near the house. This particular tree is live and healthy but has one dominant, dead branch sticking up at the very top. It also is a great overlook of the canyon, so it is an ideal lookout for birds of all sorts. The kestrels stop by at least once every day, and yesterday the male (I think) was holding a meal of some sort in its talons, using the treetop as a convenient place to eat a meal.