Monday, October 23, 2023

Eastern Parson's Spider

With Halloween just around the corner, and autumn well underway, what better creature to write about than a spider. Arachnophobia ranks as the number one most recognized phobia afflicting people. With one in four women and one in three men experiencing some form of the often-paralyzing fear of being faced with a hairy, eight-legged arachnid. I myself am a recovering arachnophobe. Throughout my childhood and a large portion of my adult life I was deeply afraid and creeped out by spiders. I knew how irrational this feeling was, but seemed powerless to stop the overwhelming terror that would sweep over me at the sight of one making its way across the ceiling of my home. I made my husband kill each one I discovered, and he had to show me that he had killed it. I couldn’t bring myself to take his word for it. I needed proof that he had adequately disposed of it. No way could I sleep knowing a wayward spider was roaming my house and would end up sharing the warmth of my bed. What a difference time and education can make. Nearly twenty years ago I became determined to confront my fear and conquer it once and for all. It started with baby steps as I photographed spiders in my yard and then made myself learn about what I photographed.  Eventually I found my fear being replaced by fascination. It took four years, but I felt I had once and for all left the fear of spiders behind me, so much so I bought my first tarantula. I now own four tarantulas and deeply respect all spiders.

This week I am featuring a spider many may have encountered, but few will know what it is. The Eastern Parson’s Spider is common in woodlands throughout Eastern North America, but also finds its way into homes in fall. These are small to somewhat medium sized spiders with a velvety black appearance. The legs are typically chestnut- colored and the abdomen will have a white or pinkish marking that resembles the cravat worn by clergymen during the Victorian era, which earned them the common name of Parson’s spider.

Parson’s spiders are in the family of ground dwelling spiders and as such are generally found speedily moving among leaf litter on the forest floor actively hunting for food. However, being classified as a ground spider doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t climb, because they certainly will. While they can spin silk, they do not spin webs, instead they ambush prey and then rapidly run in for the kill. Nocturnal by nature they hunt for various insects and other spiders during the cover of darkness. In the daylight hours they are secreted away under leaf litter, stones, logs and even in our homes. 

It is these wayward individuals that end up in our home that we are likely to see and then question what this unusual spider may be. When approached they are little speed demons that move in a rapid zig-zag bob-and-weave pattern that leaves us wondering if we actually saw what we thought we saw as this spunky little spider disappears out of sight. You are not likely to find a web in the corner of your living room to advertise this little eight-legged interlopers hiding spot. Instead, it will hide in the dark recesses of our homes, including closets, basements, cellars, under our bed and sinks. Fortunately, they will not breed within our homes, instead these spiders are simply looking for a safe place to spend the winter with ample hiding spots and food supplies available for the taking. Very little is known about their breeding cycle, but it is known that the female will deposit a silken disc-shaped egg sac, usually under the bark of a tree that she guards from predators. This egg sac may contain as many as 170 spiderlings. Because these spiders are found in all seasons, and at all stages of development it is safe to say they are probably a fairly long-lived species.

I would hazard a guess that most people faced with a spider living in their home want nothing more than for it to NOT be there. Some will take the gentle route and escort the uninvited guest outside where it belongs. Others, take a more aggressive approach and apply a size 9 boot stomp to solve the problem. I understand both responses but would encourage the former rather than the later.

These spiders are considered harmless to humans and pets, but with that being said there are exceptions. Like all spiders they possess venom to subdue their prey and help liquefy it for digestion. This venom is almost always harmless to us, but it some extreme cases a bite from this spider may cause reactions that require medical attention. The bite is reported to be painful, with a typical reaction being mild itching, and slight inflammation at the bite sight. This usually lasts for a few minutes to a few hours with no other lasting effects from the unfortunate encounter. On the extreme end of the spectrum of reactions, individuals may experience swelling, nausea, nervousness, elevated temperatures, racing heartbeat, itching, inflammation and necroses of flesh at the bite sight as the venom dissolves skin tissue. If a person were to experience this type of atypical reaction medical care is required. Bites happen when the spider finds itself trapped between your skin and clothing or caught up in your bedding and rolled on. Any self-respecting spider is going to bite when finding itself being smashed. 

Because autumn is the time of year when spiders often move into our dwellings, it is always wise to shake out clothing, and bedding that has been stored, as these make great hiding spots for spiders. Always check shoes or boots before placing your foot inside. To help mitigate populations of spiders showing up within your home, controlling their food sources and hiding spots will go a long way in making your place inhospitable to them.

Halloween is the time of year when we celebrate all things scary, creepy, odd, and mysterious. Spiders seem to fall into each of these categories, and if you dare…… face your fear this year and see the spider in a whole new light. 

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Gray Treefrog

As we say goodbye to another summer as it wanes into autumn, I am reminded of how silent the landscape is soon to become. Winter with its dark gloomy days, cold temperatures, and seemingly desolate landscape, always makes me long for the return of spring and of one of my favorite sounds---the call of the frogs and toads.

Pretty tulip all red and white

Little did you know what would turn up inside

A little tree frog hopped into sight.

Unexpected surprise, on the wind he did ride.


Tulip in the wind shaking to and fro..

Still the little tree frog held on tight....

The wind battered tulip held this little beau

Keeping his perch til night.


Suddenly to the right, a sound,

A tiny cousin, a Boreal Chorus Frog sang out loud.

Small it's true, with eyes bright and round,

He sings with feeling, his notes abound.


Night has risen, day is done

Frogs everywhere, gray, and green

With songs all joined, the chorus is begun

I sit and I listen, as is my routine.


Spring and Summer oh what a joy.

But alas the season must end.

Winters wind does summer’s heat destroy.

Now I must sit and wait for the return of my friends.


Recently, as I was doing laundry in my basement, I reached for the handle of the door into my laundry room and came in contact with a cold, slimy moving object. Somewhat startled by the unexpected surprise, I had to laugh as I realized it was a tiny treefrog. This is not the first time a treefrog has made its way into my basement, and each time I find it by happenstance as my hand comes into contact with its cold, slimy body. I released the most recent interloper to the front yard and was prompted to feature them in this weeks article.

The name gray treefrog is a bit of a misnomer as they may be gray, green, brown, nearly black, or even nearly white. Their species name of Hyla Versicolor came from the Greek word “hyla” which translates to “belonging to the woods” and the Latin word “versi” which means various and “color” which means color. So, their scientific name literally means “variable colored belonging to the woods.” As an arboreal frog that finds its home among the trees and can change its color much like a chameleon (albeit at a slower rate), this is an apt name for this species. This color

change ability is a great way to avoid predators such as snakes, skunks, and even other frogs who may want to eat them. They have a blotchy pattern on their backs that resembles lichen, the skin appears lumpy, giving them a warty appearance. Females at nearly two inches in length are a little larger than their male counterparts. Both genders have a unique feature, the underside of their front and back legs have a dark band-like pattern that starkly contrasts with bright yellow patches visible when hopping or climbing. Their feet are webbed and tipped with toe pads that secrete an adhesive substance that works like suction cups, allowing them to climb trees or even the vertical surface of our homes. They secrete a poisonous substance from their skin that makes them distasteful to some predators and may cause eye irritation if you rub your eyes after touching one. It’s okay to catch them, just wash your hands afterwards.

Like all frogs they use sound to communicate. Songs may be used to attract mates or to intimidate rival males. Or to drive tired humans insane at night when they incessantly call from the shutters on your home (or so I’ve heard)! Soon after they emerge from hibernation the males locate suitable ponds, or other water sources, typically free of fish to begin serenading nearby females. If rival males show up, they will vigorously defend their real estate by wrestling, shoving, kicking or even head butting the unwanted competition. Females choose the most viral male based on the strength and pattern of his mating call. Up to two thousand eggs will be deposited in clusters that attach to pond plants or other structures within the water. In about four days the eggs hatch. The tadpoles are as variable in color as the adults. They are rounded with high, wide tails. If predators are sharing the same area, the tails may be red or orange as a form of defense against predation. Bright colors in nature typically advertise something is either dangerous or nasty tasting. Within two to three months the tadpoles transform into tiny froglets that now live on land. Froglets tend to be green and often stay that way until they reach their full adult size, when they begin utilizing the camouflage abilities they were born with.


Nocturnal by nature, it is not uncommon to find them at pole lights, porch lights and other artificial light, these are the smart, enterprising, although a tad bit lazy hunters. Treefrogs feed on a wide variety of insects, spiders and even each other if given the opportunity. Because of their preference for feasting on insects they are beneficial in controlling these sometimes annoying or even destructive pests. During the day they hide under logs, bark, or various manmade structures. This particular species will sometimes be found basking in the sun, which is a somewhat odd behavior for frogs as most are prone to desiccation and may rapidly dry out. Tree frogs however seem to tolerate a certain amount of exposure to heat and sunlight without fear of dehydration and death.

Nearly all frogs are considered an indicator species. The skin of frogs is permeable and more vulnerable to environmental changes. If an ecosystem contains a healthy population of frogs, one can assume the nearby habitats are healthy as well. For this reason alone, they are one of the most important components of their given habitat.


As winter approaches frogs begin turning their energy towards hibernation. All frogs located in cold climates contain something in their blood similar to anti-freeze called glycerol. Up to 80% of the treefrogs bodily fluids are made up of this substance, allowing it to survive internal temperatures of 18 degrees Fahrenheit. The remaining fluids will freeze, and the eyes become opaque. Their breathing and heart beats are temporarily suspended. This ability to suspend bodily functions will see them through the winter until spring returns. At that time their bodies will gradually acclimate to the slowly warming temperatures, thus thawing the frog. One of the reasons I encourage people to leave their leaves is by doing so you are leaving a buffer of natural insulation for frogs and insects that utilize them for winter hibernation. I never rake my yard until spring when I clean up the flower beds. I know all those creatures living in my yard that depend on them are resting easy for the long cold winter.

Soon winter will put itself to bed and spring will return, along with the welcome call of the frogs.

“What is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of a whippoorwill, or the arguments of the frogs around the pond?” ---Chief Seattle- 1854


Monday, October 2, 2023

Stretch Spiders

Long-Jawed Orb Weavers in the family Tetragnathidae, were first described in 1866 by a German entomologist named Anton Menge. This family name comes from the Greek words Tetra, and Gnathes, meaning four jaws. Which is an apt description for these odd spiders. The male and female both have large, elongated mouthparts. Which are exaggerated in size in comparison to their bodies to the point of being comical. Other common names attributed to this group of spiders is stretch spiders or stilt spiders, which seems a more apt descriptor. These spiders rest with their front and back legs stretched in front and behind their bodies giving them an extremely elongated appearance. This allows them to hide among grasses and other weedy plants without being seen. With hungry birds on the lookout for tasty spiders, this is a great way to keep out of sight. Sometimes these spiders wait in the center of the web or off to the side; camouflaged by their characteristic posture. If disturbed, they rush into the vegetation and wrap their legs around a blade of grass, or they drop to the ground. They are not particularly defensive and will try to remain hidden rather that seek confrontation. Like all spiders they have venom and have control over the amount delivered, dependent upon what the occasion calls for. The venom they possess is designed to subdue small prey items not to harm humans. However, because of their extremely large jaws, it could prove to be painful. Best to observe and not disturb.

This species is highly variable in appearance and may be creamy-yellow to greenish, on their underside is a thick black stripe with silvery bands on either side. Body length is approximately one inch, but with those long, outstretched legs they appear much larger.

There are nearly a thousand species within this family of spiders, with only fifteen known species in North America. Most are associated with tropical and sub-tropical climates. Several species are found in Missouri and one of the most common is the one pictured here called Tetragnatha extensa. I could not find a common name for this particular spider, but it is the one you are most likely to see near bodies of water such as lakes, ponds, and streams in our state. I find them frequently near ponds with their legs outstretched, hiding among the vegetation waiting for food to pass by. Like their cousins, the garden spiders we typically find in our gardens or hanging in the eaves of our homes, these spiders also spin orb webs. Their webs are more loosely woven than those of their cousins, with fewer spokes and an open hole in the center. Not nearly the works of art like the webs their cousins create. Nearly all orb weaver spiders rebuild their webs each evening. After a long night of insects bombarding the web, it sustains damage that makes catching the next day’s meal more difficult. Better to start the night off with a fresh web. In the case of long-jawed orb weavers their webs are tilted, sometimes in an almost-horizontal direction. How come? Because their webs are often situated over the water’s surface. There, insects like mayflies, midges, gnats, and caddisflies, which start their life as nymphs underwater, will emerge from the water as adults and fly directly up into the awaiting long-jawed spiders net.


Living near water not only provides the spider with supper, but it also provides vital humidity that keeps the spiders from desiccating or drying out. Temperature is the number one dehydrating factor more so than the humidity in the spider’s microhabitat, the spider can put up with a certain amount of dehydration if prey is plentiful. Meaning they will get most of their hydration from their prey. They also require weedy plants to camouflage themselves to avoid predation. They need access to open water, plenty of available prey, and suitable vegetation to anchor themselves to.

Most spiders are intolerant of neighboring spiders and often avoid building webs in close proximity of them. However, this particular group of spiders doesn’t seem to mind having neighbors and are often found in groups. The one pictured here was photographed near our pond, and there were many others in the area as well.


Like most spiders, mating occurs in late summer and is quite brief. Males and females lock jaws, this “lip-locked,” position means she cannot eat her mate. He uses his pedipalps to deliver his reproductive fluids to her, and a subsequent egg sac is then attached to nearby vegetation. Often the female will guard the eggs temporarily, but she is destined to die in a few weeks. The spiderlings will remain in the egg sac all winter and emerge the following spring.

These spiders are truly adapted to life near water, they build stringy webs near cattails and other aquatic vegetation and take advantage of emerging aquatic insects as a food source. If one should happen to fall into the water, no worries, they can walk on water. Provided of course they get a move on it before a hungry bass or frog makes a meal out of them.