As I explained in my last post on the subject, my mornings on the island of North Haven always begin with a stroll around the perimeter of the house, coffee in hand, Looking At Stuff. Apparently I’m part of a long-standing tradition. As the North Haven Historical Society explains, the island was discovered by “rusticators” in the 1880s, first coming from Boston, then from New York and Philadelphia, and what is it I’m doing if not rusticating? Sometimes I rusticate all day long. In the years that I visited the nearby island of Vinalhaven, my viewing tended to focus on osprey fishing dramas, with the occasional hairy moth for comedic relief. The location of the house I’ve been renting on North Haven is not situated quite so close to osprey fishing grounds — a pity, since they’re vigorous and adroit in nearly everything they do — but it’s been very good for moth and spider-gazing.
A luna moth in the faux bois style, Vinalhaven, 2007.
There are plenty of woodpeckers at work on North Haven,
but they’re camera-shy.
For much of last week my friend and I were captivated by the goings-on of two spiders down a web-hole in the driveway, and returned to it to check on them several times each day. I’d seen this type of web many times before, littering the grass, sometimes as neatly hemmed as a handkerchief blown off a washline — the handiwork of the Agelenidae family — but the hole in this one was full of tension: they were engaged in a stand-off that lasted for days. A timely stand-off: mating for this type of spider “occurs in late summer or early fall.”
One of the two had a more substantive spinneret, round and plump where the other’s looked almost perfunctory, more like a husk. We presumed the bigger and curvier of the pair to be the female, full of silk, and from her position we also surmised she was the original occupant and defender of the hole. She faced outwards while the other tried to enter, his back to us, advancing further and further down the funnel a few steps at a time over a period of two or three days. His progress was not consistent at all; he was repeatedly put into retreat, and several times reduced to standing just outside the entrance. Clearly they were about to fuck, or fight, but in what order? We didn’t want to miss any of the action but the arriviste often blocked the view, and I could never quite make out whether his acquaintance’s eight eyes were saying “get OUT!” or “hey, hi.”
Or both at once. Spider romances can be hard to parse. We returned again and again to try to do precisely that, and one morning there was just the missus home. Whatever had happened, she’d apparently eaten him afterwards, and this required extensive thinking-about in the hammock: might people, in certain rare circumstances, benefit from this practice?
The common female funnel grass spider was the subject of a recent study on sexual cannibalism, and it turns out they can go any which way:
[The researchers] found that the females were likely to eat any male that arrived if they were hungry, or just feeling particularly aggressive. In other scenarios, they found the females a little more discerning, allowing some to mate with them, while eating others. In some extreme cases they found some females that refused to eat any males at all, and some that ate every male no matter what else was going on.
With her gentleman caller so tidily disposed of, this individual spider probably will not find herself carrying, years later, a useless, stubborn, ossified little ball of love and acceptance that she’d mostly prefer to be rid of, and that she once felt sure she’d successfully passed through her irritated digestive system like a kidney stone. She’ll almost certainly never spend an odd and sleepless night brooding over the way his relentless caginess had made her feel panicked beyond belief and reason, mortified by the words her panic had manifested itself in, and pointlessly wondering whether she ought to have simply bitten his head off the very instant she’d first had a clear-eyed look at him, cleanly and incisively. She probably won’t waste a moment of her time marveling at the circular little dance he performed, obscuring parts of himself so as to be more likable, drawing attention to others that somehow didn’t hold up, all the while skittering away from any fool or creep who might like him too much. At the very least she’ll never have to suffer him suggesting that she’s too sensitive about things, as if she ought to wear some sort of protective gear, as a welder does. Or as if her sensitivities are out of order — maybe she ought to take a sharper look at her priorities and put her 401-k nearer to the top? Eight angry feet to stomp are not enough. No, she’s probably free to enjoy a peaceable solitude down her well-tended bolt hole, watching the shadows outside lengthen, sinking her mouth into the soft, glimmering, green-black abdomen of one fly after another without feeling wary and worn-out and guarded, qualities that she has always pointedly disliked in other spiders.
Or, as my friend sensibly pointed out, “maybe he got laid and took off.”
Some of my most memorable nature-viewing moments on these islands have gone unphotographed, for various reasons. I’ve yet to visit either Vinalhaven or North Haven without at least one good bald eagle sighting, for example, but I never seem to have a camera in hand when it happens, and anyhow I think they all look alike. The tufts of strange, pubic mosses that cling to the trees might have more character.
Seals pop up every now and then, but they tend to keep their distance. This past Saturday my friend and I sat on the rocky beach across from the house and talked about four nearby seals for a good part of the afternoon while they (possibly?) conferred about us. They were very good company, but I didn’t have any urge to try to capture their little round heads bobbing up and down, not over such an expanse. I prefer close observation to mechanical zooming-in-on.
My most sensationalistic sighting took place on Monhegan Island some time in the late 90s, at considerable distance but wholly consuming. My friend and I were out hiking and cautiously approached the edge of a very sharp, very high cliff crawling on our bellies. (Not overly cautiously; Monhegan’s cliffs are serious, and last year while we were on North Haven an Irish visitor to Monhegan was swept out to sea and killed after he lost his footing). When we looked down we saw two massive orca whales splashing about in the water below, almost preposterously close to the edge of the island, and close enough to the surface that we could see their full length at moments. I didn’t have a camera with me at the time, but if I had, the height, the wind, and the waves and whales crashing below would probably have kept me from reaching for it; I felt sick with vertigo, and very nearly as tempted to back away as to keep watching. I don’t know enough about whale behavior to know what they were doing, but from my vantage point they appeared to have found a spot where they could stretch out and enjoy the turmoil around them, their breaching and lunging some sort of commentary on or appreciation of the endless conflict between granite and ocean. My stomach was down there with them.
The moths of North Haven and Vinalhaven are numerous and varied. I know very little about them but seem to be on the verge of getting into them in a big way. I’ll be in New Mexico next month and I’m eager to see what sort of moths they’ve got, though somewhat concerned about the lack of porch lights in the desert. (I’ll be meeting up with friends near Albuquerque and driving to Monument Valley). The moth below is Ennomos magnaria, a Maple Spanworm moth, and upon close inspection it wears a mullet.
They seem to hang around far longer than other types of moths, no matter how frequently the screen door swings open and shut. I think it takes them all day to dry the dew from their hair.
New reading accessory.
“The baked potato.”
My friend had another well-considered observation the day after the spider drama had come to a head, when he came out to join me on the deck and found me inches away from a very large spider of some other sort that was dangling out of a shrub, a brown spider as big as the first joint of my thumb. These islands in Penobscot Bay are full of spiders, some more monstrous than others; Wikipedia says the nearby island of Islesboro is home to the up-island spider, “also known as a hearse-house spider,” and “thought to be a species of unusually large wolf spider. . . . Its unusual feature is its size, by some reports spanning at least 8 inches with its legs splayed out. Some specimens are reported to be large and heavy enough to create audible footsteps in a quiet room.” I had a camera between me and it, but, my friend admonished, might nonetheless end up with a face full of spider, and probably would not be happy if that happened. It’s not that I was unconscious of my peril. It’s that my urge to document things overtakes me at moments, and I become an instrument of it, unconcerned with my own self-interests. It was probably for the best that the ugly little beast disappeared up its rigging before I could steady myself to get a better shot. My friend also thought it remarkable that I should love bugs on vacation but mostly hate them at home, but it makes perfect sense to me: people are deeply, deeply irrational.
Chapter 4 of my field guide to nature is here and you can work your way backwards from there. Like the ones preceding it, it fixates on trees.