Friday, 16 November 2012

A different side to spiders

The mere mention of the word 'spider' can strike fear into the heart of even the toughest wildlife enthusiast.

It's true, spiders have a bad reputation, but we shouldn't forget that these amazing little creatures are the master craftsmen behind one of nature's most underrated wonders - the spider's web.

Works of art
The crisp, morning frosts of autumn and winter show these beautiful creations off to their best. Ice crystals clinging to the silk strands dance and glisten as the web sways in the breeze, creating a stunning jewelled display.

A spider can create one of these intricate, elegant structures in less than an hour, as this wonderful timelapse footage shows. And just think, it could be happening in your garden right now!
The silk used to spin a web is finer than a human hair, yet five times stronger than steel. Engineers have calculated that a woven cord of spider's silk as thick as a pencil could stop a jet in midair - now that's strong!

Carpets of silk
This spider silk is responsible for a very mysterious and atmospheric sight of autumn. You might have noticed it if you've Frosted seedhead, festooned with frozen spider's silk.been walking recently - shimmering carpets of gossamer silk covering shrubs and bushes.
Though it might look like someone has got a little carried away with the Halloween decorations, this peculiar sight is actually the work of millions of baby spiders.

Up, up and away
When it's time for spiderlings to leave their mother, they climb up to high points on plants, point their abdomens skywards, and start producing silk threads.

Some of these threads drift gently downwards and become tangled in bushes, producing the sheets of silk we see. But when there's a breeze, the silk threads act like a sail, lifting the spiderlings high into the sky.

On a calm day they may only travel a few metres, but if there is a strong breeze the spiderlings can drift thousands of feet up into the sky and travel hundreds of miles - a process known as ballooning.

So next time you're out and about, keep your eyes peeled for ballooning babies and wonderful webs - the nicer side to spiders.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Jays – The time to see them!

I could probably count the number of times I see a jay in summer on two hands, but for the last few weeks it has been difficult to travel anywhere without encountering one of these colourful crows.

With their brilliant colours concealed by the abundant lush green foliage of high summer and their natural tendency for shyness, you could be forgiven for thinking that jays leave our woodlands during the summer. They are still there of course, their raucous calls coming from deep within the treetops may be the only clue to their presence.

It is a different story now though. The autumn leaf drop means there is no place now for these woodland residents to hide and jays are much more obvious through their transformation into ‘hoarders’ and ‘stashers’ of the treasures of the woodland floor.

Daily plundering sorties see every jay meticulously scouring the ground beneath our magnificent oaks for glistening acorns nestled in the golden-glowing leaf litter. One of the wettest summers on record has produced an acorn bonanza and jays have been quick to take advantage. In spite of the abundant food on offer, jays don’t spend the diminishing daylight hours scoffing their bounty and fattening up in preparation for winter. Jays, like most crows, are very intelligent and play the long game by burying their treasure in a variety of well-spaced underground stashes, providing a source of food on which they can depend when food becomes harder to find in the depths of winter.

Regular flights between foraging grounds and their stores in various woods is what makes jays so much more visible now. This is confirmed on the BTO’s Birdtrack website where the reporting rate for Jay routinely climbs at this time of year. However, during early October this year, the reporting rate rose to record-breaking levels. High-flying birds and large numbers were noted in many unusual locations. In Norfolk, for example, at least 668 passed over Hunstanton on 6 October. Such observations hint that some of the Jays being seen may be of continental origin, though the picture is complicated by native birds dispersing from breeding areas in search of food. I have recently seen two jays move through my garden, which is almost unprecedented. My last record if my old grey matter serves me right was a single flyover around ten years ago!

Thanks to David Lee for his excellent image of a jay.