Nature Notes

Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

THE equinox has slid past and the horse chestnut tree beside the Ilkley Health Centre is already changing colour so I guess Autumn is here. The garden birds are quiet and subdued but I noticed a robin trying out its winter song – a rather plaintive little wisp of song. Both males and females sing all winter to maintain their territories – vital for winter survival, I guess.

Now is the time we are especially aware of spiders. House spiders in search of mates disrupt evening TV viewing by scuttling across the living room carpet and often end up in the bath. My husband leaves an escape ladder of toilet paper draped over the edge for them. We are fond of spiders in our house. I fear this arachnophilia might be developing to eccentric proportions.

During my recent convalescence after hip surgery I slept in the downstairs guest room and shared this accommodation with Charlotte, a large daddy-long-legs spider These cellar spiders got their nickname because at first sight they really look like that large crane fly we call a daddy-long-legs. The segmented body is small and the eight hair-thin legs very long indeed. They originally lived in caves from which they moved into our cellars. Recently they’ve begun to appreciate the comfort of other rooms and the population has expanded. Though my reference books suggest they prefer damp, dark and solitude, Charlotte clearly preferred a warm, dry bedroom and didn’t mind human company. She was a remarkably easy room-mate, spending all her time in the corner near the door, hanging motionless about two feet from the ground. I don’t think I’d have been quite so tolerant of anything that scuttled round a lot but she didn’t. Occasionally she’d move up to near the ceiling in the night but always returned to her post by morning. I checked yesterday and she’s still there.

Despite their apparent fragility, daddy-long-legs spiders are fierce and successful predators. As well as catching flies, they prey on other spiders and have been known to eat their own kind. They do spin webs, though these are shabby, tattered affairs and not at all sticky. If prey blunders in, the spider casts out long lines of silk, then dashes out and finishes it off with a lethal bite, wraps it up and sucks it dry.

How different from the exquisite webs spun by the garden spider. As these large airy structures catch the early, low rays of the sun they are one of the glories of Autumn.