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Otto: A wedding, a chorus frog and a wolf spider

Published: Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Photo provided)
Although omnipresent in spring, chorus frogs are a little harder to find in summer and fall. This one showed a preference for rubber mats and dried grasses at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center.

Spring cleaning. It’s a ritual we’re all familiar with – in spring.

But here at Hickory Knolls, those clean-the-windows, clear-out-the-clutter, power-wash-the-concrete rituals happen almost every week in summer, too, thanks to our newfound popularity as a party and wedding venue.

The results of this turn of events are largely positive. I’ve turned into a neat freak, which everyone agrees is a good thing. The facility gleams even on nonwedding days. And, best of all, even with a dust rag in my pocket and a broom in my hand, there’s still a chance to commune with nature.

So there I was last Saturday tussling with some particularly tough hard water spots on the back door, when I happened to look down on the rubber doormats we keep there. Realizing we might need to tidy up around them, I set the vinegar solution down, lifted the mats and found, to my delight, only a little dirt. Better still, up against the foundation, sat a tiny Pseudacris triseriata, or western chorus frog.

Just slightly bigger than a nickel, these little guys are the strident songsters we hear each spring calling from wetlands and ephemeral ponds. Omnipresent in March and April, they melt into the landscape as the temperature warms, becoming silent and inconspicuous through summer and fall as they disperse into woodlands and fields. And, it turns out, damp rubber mats.

We switched briefly from cleaning to photo-shoot mode, snapping several pictures of the moist critter before relocating it to the shrubbery that would serve as the backdrop for the day’s wedding. A few hours later, the ceremony went off without a hitch. The frog, with its breeding season over, opted to hold its peace – if not forever, at least until next spring.

Another discovery we were grateful to make before the wedding came courtesy of a young visitor in our exhibit hall. I was wiping down the glass on one of the live animal displays when the lad came over and asked, “Did you know one of your tarantulas is loose?”  

I’ll admit, this one took me by surprise. Our three tarantulas (two at the front desk, one in my office) live in aquariums that have secure lids; further, they’re diggers more than climbers. I was trying to envision the circumstances that would have led to a release (more correctly, thinking “How the HECK did that happen??) when the boy pointed to the creature he’d spotted.

There on the carpet, soaking up the warm morning sun, was a large Lycosidae, or wolf spider.

Although shy of tarantula dimensions, this spider, without a doubt, was big. Big bordering on huge. With legs outstretched, it occupied around 4 square inches of floor space. And man was it fast.

As ambush hunters, wolf spiders are gifted with amazing speed, which allows them to overtake and engulf their prey. I can’t remember the last time I ambushed, let alone overtook or engulfed anything, so the spider had a distinct advantage right from the get-go. After a couple valiant but unsuccessful attempts to herd the hefty girl toward the door, I opted for the big guns: a wide-mouthed jar and a postcard.  

With the spider contained, the alert young boy and his even more aware (maybe wary?) mother went back to the exhibits, and I headed outside to release the wolfie. I put the jar on the ground, lifted it slightly, and watched as the spider scurried toward a crevice. Dark, quiet and out of the way, it was the perfect spot for a fuzzy, eight-legged beast to bide its time until the wedding activities subsided.

The rest of the day passed in a whirlwind – pre-wedding tasks like setup and parking were followed by post-wedding duties like wiping up spills and gathering the recycling and trash – with little opportunity to interact with any nature at all, save a wild guest or two. 

By midnight, all was quiet again and only one last chore remained. It was time to haul the refuse to the park district’s service center.

As I approached the stop sign on Peck Road at Dean Street, I couldn’t help but notice I was surrounded by sound. Not the radio, for I’d turned it down, nor the traffic noise we are so accustomed to hearing. But rather the sound of what we naturalists call night music – hundreds, maybe thousands, of katydids calling from the trees that form a bower at that intersection.

Even at that late hour, I couldn’t help but pause for a moment or two (or three, since traffic was nil) and listen to the cacophony of insect love calls – males sending out their signals, the females responding in turn. (Unlike crickets and other orthopterans, katydids of both genders stridulate, or make sounds. Males, however, are louder.)

Listening to katydids, in fact insects of all types, is one of my favorite summer activities. It’s good, clean fun. And a fitting end to a good, clean day.

• Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org. 

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