SPIDERS IN THE DARK
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). Spiders in the Dark. LMD, January 2003. Page 132. Volume 09, Issue 06. ISSN 1391-135x.
Gehan goes “owling” and stumbles upon a nocturnal Wood Spider in the act of casting its web.
Shining strands of gossamer radiated out from a central hub. The torch light radiated off the almost microscopic strands, which glinted like strands of steel. We abruptly stopped, confronted by this orb, almost three feet in diameter. It was tethered to overhanging branches above and on the bottom, to the surface of the road. The web was not there when we had walked past half an hour ago in fading light. In the darkness, we had almost blundered into it. The web shivered and shook. A brown furry spider, about two inches across, darted along a radial strand, spinning out more gossamer. We watched in fascination as this Wood Spider continued to lay out its nocturnal snare. In the morning, the web would be gone. As the sun begins it climb over the horizon, the Wood Spider will ingest its web. An efficient form of recycling and saving energy. The next evening, it will rapidly weave its spell of death.
I was with Nadeera Weerasinghe, a talented young herpetologist. He volunteered to fetch the video and vanished down the road with the torch, the only torch we had. I watched a funnel of light filling the trees as he walked away through the forest, eventually leaving me in darkness. Through the canopy, I could make out a faintly pale sky. A sliver of water shone on the road. I was glad of the mud puddle’s reflection as it stopped me from being disoriented in the darkness. The night air was filled with the incessant call of cicadas. Here and there a tree frog chirped. I listened carefully trying to identify them as individual species based on what Nadeera had taught me. The ‘crick crick” of the Variable Tree Frog, was scratchy. The Common Toad’s call was fuller and deeper.
Most of all, I was hoping to hear some Owls. I listened carefully with my finger poised on the record button of my min-disc player. Attached to it was a sensitive microphone attached to a parabola. The evening had begun promisingly. I had arrived with a dozen eco-tourists from the nearby Hunas Falls Hotel. We were greeted by the call of an Indian Scops Owl. We listened and recorded for about five minutes as it called form deep within the secondary forest of the Puhuamabara Forest. A precious sixty acres of wet zone forest which had been spared the axe on account of its value as a water catchement for the nearby villages. Above us, tall Hama Trees towered like giants. The Scops Owl’s calls abruptly stopped.
We had also listened in anticipation for the call of the Chestnut-backed Owlet. Being an endemic bird, this bird is high on the wish list of visiting birders, an important segment of Sri Lanka’s eco-tourists. As darkness crept in, the sense of fatigue falling over us was counterbalanced by the eager anticipation of those on a night safari. I sensed that the eco-tourists were enjoying the experience, despite many having had a long day. A sequence of short, loud but not jarring whistles filled the air. Tyronne and Wicky leading two groups of birders were elated. Mission accomplished as the promised Chestnut-backed Owlet had indeed announced its presence in the forest.
A large shadowy figure glided in silently and settled on a branch. On my won, in the dark, I wondered whether this was on one of the pair of Brown Fish Owls, which lived here. Or, was it something else. I was distracted by the end of a burning cigarette. Someone was walking towards me. Suddenly the walker zig zagged erratically and floated high in the air, towards the canopy. I realized the burning cigarette end was a firefly.
A rapid and brief sequence of owl calls cut though the call of the cicadas and the tree frogs. The Indian Scops Owls were about, but invisible to me. I listened carefully. Nothing. I switched on the parabolic microphone and ‘gained up’. The shrill hum of cicadas filled the headphones, but no owl calls. Owls are built to be silent hunters. The feathers are designed to allow the nocturnal hunter to fly around without a whisper of a sound. When they chose to be silent, they become all but invisible by night or day.
A funnel of light filled the brooding forest. Nadeera appeared clutching a video camera. He had been away barely for ten minutes, but it had seemed an eternity. The Wood Spider darted in and out, completing its web. An unsuspecting victim blundering into the web will send tremors along the strands of the web. The magnitude of the tremors will advise the spider as whether to approach for a feast or to flee from a potential predator. The construction completed, the Wood Spider moved to the center and waited motionless. I hope to see him again when I next return in the night.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife and adventure travel company. He is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.