Spiderweb Detective

Morning landscapes draped with condensation reveal the silken works of spiders all around. All spiders spin silk, even the name spider originated from the word “spinder”. Spider silk is a protein liquid that solidifies when pulled out from the spider’s spigot-like spinnerets (finger-like projections at the end of the spider’s abdomen). 

This Yellow Garden Spider’s spinnerets are visible above and between their top yellow dots.

Different spiders use silk for different purposes: continuous lines of silk (draglines) and egg sacs, parachutes to catch the wind (ballooning) and wrapping for their prey, resting retreats, and hunting webs. Of the spiders that do use webs to catch prey, there are four general categories of webs – head out on a misty morning and see how many you can find!

Orbwebs are made up of lines of silk radiating from a central point overlaid with a sticky silk spiral. Spiders hang in the non-sticky center or sides of the web, waiting to feel the vibrations of prey.

Cobwebs are an irregular jumble of silk threads, often tucked into nooks and crannies. Spiders usually sit in the center of the web waiting for their prey to trip their sticky silk snares.

Funnel webs are flat webs with a funnel-shaped opening at one end. The spider lurks in this funnel tunnel, waiting to dart and grab entangled prey. 

Sheet webs can be a flat, convex, or concave. Spiders often perch inverted below the sheet. When insects become trapped in the irregular silk threads above the sheet, the spider shakes the web until they fall onto the sheet. The spider then bites through the sheet web and pulls through their meal. 


I found one.
It’s plump.
Come see this
mushroom pump.
It’s spitting
spore on spore.
I’m squeezing
more and more.
Smoke scatters
summer air.
Puffball babies

-Amy Ludwig Vanderwater in the book Forest Has a Song

Immature white puffballs on left and mature brown puffballs on right

Now is the time of year to be on the lookout for puffballs to puff! Puffballs spend most of the year as mycelium (underground thread-like network) digesting dead wood. When ready to reproduce, the mycelium develops puffballs above ground. At first the mushrooms are white, covered in tiny bumps and solid inside. As they mature in the fall, the puffballs transform into a brown hollow chamber, filled with powdery spores. A pore forms at the top of the mushroom where spores are released in brown clouds with the impact of falling raindrops, scampering animals, or some gentle poking. 

The latin name for these puffballs was Lycoperdon pyriforme (which in direct translation is “Wolf-fart Pear Shape”), but due to DNA analysis, they are now in their own genus – Apioperdon pyriforme. More commonly they are called Pear-shaped Puffballs or Stump Puffballs. As you’re exploring puffballs, think about what names you have for this mushroom. How high and how far can you make the puffball spores go? Can you find the biggest and smallest puffballs? Can you incorporate puffballs into a fairy house? Happy puffball puffing! 

Natural History Mystery

What is inside this folded, browned sugar maple leaf?

This is a Maple Trumpet Skeletonizer caterpillar’s home! This pale yellow caterpillar uses its frass (excrement) and silk to build a hideaway from predators. The tube grows wider as the caterpillar (and its frass) get larger, forming a trumpet-like shape. The trumpets are nestled into a leaf folded with silken threads. The caterpillars feed, and thus skeletonize, the leaf from the protection of the trumpet.

The Maple Trumpet Skeletonizer caterpillar out from the safety of their trumpet.

In the fall, the caterpillar drops to the ground, creates a silken cocoon between two leaves, and pupates. The brown and tan speckled moth emerges in June, mates, lays eggs singly on maple leaves, and the trumpet-building begins anew! 

Loose Parts

“In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.” – Simon Nicholson: The Theory of Loose Parts, 1971

Loose parts are open-ended materials that can be manipulated in many ways. They are inherently flexible and promote creativity, problem-solving, communication skills, self-confidence, curiosity, and imagination. Outdoors, there are naturally many loose parts, such as sticks, rocks, flowers, cones, bark, shells, seed pods, and flowers.

Four Winds has created a guide to creating an open-ended outdoor play space anywhere with loose parts, including materials to have on hand, adult role, benefits, and books. Check it out here!

Summertime Stream Play

Few places allow children to be as fully immersed in nearby nature as a cold stream on a hot summer day! 

There’s so much to do and to explore in and around the water, and there’s no need to bring anything extra along, except maybe a towel and a second set of clothes. 

Think back to your own childhood. What memories do you have of summertime stream play? Perhaps you recall the full-body satisfaction of the physical challenges and risks, like hopping from rock to rock or walking over fallen trees to cross the creek. Or trying to stay upright walking barefoot through fast flowing water on slippery rocks. Even braving the cold temperatures to dip in was a feat!

Or did you prefer games of skill, like throwing stones at floating sticks or building stacks of stones that reached way above your head. 

How wonderful to create these kinds of summertime memories for the children in your life today! Of course, streams are always changing, and sometimes in a very short timeframe, so be cautious and model for your kids how to be aware and stay safe.

Streamside is a perfect place for kids to create their own games with whatever loose parts they find nearby. A.A.Milne’s Pooh Bear did just this when Pooh “invented” the game of Poohsticks after accidentally dropping a pine cone on the upstream side of a bridge and then noticing it appear on the other side (The House at Pooh Corner, 1928).  

There’s plenty of science to learn from a stream, too, of course! And children’s questions can help shape all sorts of adventures.

Where does your stream come from and where does it go; how far can you follow your stream’s journey to the sea?

What floats and what sinks? 

Why does the water flow fast in some sections and slows way down, even reversing, in others? 

Does the sound of the stream change as it runs over different rocks and at different speeds? 

What critters live in the stream and how do they live and breathe and find food under water?

What animal tracks can you find in the soft mud along the streambank?

Here in the dog days of summer, take a lesson from your younger self and share the joy of discovery with the children in your life. Peer into the shallows, turn over some rocks, and see what you can find, together! 

Natural History Mystery

Who is immobilizing this bumblebee? Look closely as she is quite camouflaged!

This female Goldenrod Crab Spider is sucking up a meal! Like their namesake, crab spiders walk sideways and have wide and flat bodies with long front legs. Female Goldenrod Crab Spiders can change from white to yellow to white to match the flower on which they are hunting. These camouflaged crab spiders are ambush predators, sitting for days with their front legs held ready in a grasping position. Unlike web-spinning spiders, crab spiders have excellent vision. When a bee, fly, or other prey lands on a flower, the crab spider quickly injects venom to immobilize and digestive juice to dissolve their meal.

Goldenrod crab spiders’ default color is white. It can take 10-25 days to change to bright yellow, but only about a week to change back to white.

Snails, Slugs, and Slime

Follow a glittering slimy trail, past munched mushrooms, through shaded corridors, under rotting logs, and you might find a creature that has been oozing around Earth for 40-50 million years  – a slug or snail!

Snails and slugs are gastropods –  or animals with a stomach foot (in Latin gastro=stomach and pod=foot). Their body is like a muscular foot with a toothy tongue-filled mouth on one end. To glide along, the muscles in their foot contract in a wave-like motion and they secrete slime.

Slime is a watery gel that absorbs moisture from the environment. To allow smooth movement, this mucus is thin when the slug or snail is in motion. But at rest, the slime thickens to help them stay attached, even when upside down. The slime also keeps snails and slugs moist and protected from predators. 

We’ve found uses for their slime too. It is antibacterial and antiviral and has been used to treat wounds. The mucus is used in skin creams to minimize wrinkles and has inspired surgical glue. 

Here are some ideas to get to know our ancient, gravity-defying, decomposer neighbors:

🐌Observe snails and slugs up close: what does the slime feel like? When do they swivel and retract their two longer eye tentacles and two smaller smell tentacles? Can you see their radula (toothy tongue) when they are feeding?

🐌Make a snail-sized home: they’ll need a shaded spot and depending on the species, dead vegetation, fungi, algae, or tree sap, to scrape up.

🐌Read some slimy books:
Are You a Snail? by Judy Allen
The Slug: The Disgusting Critters Series by Elise Gravel
Sylvia Finds a Way by Stephanie Shaw

If you’ve picked up a slug, you know how sticky your hand is afterwards. And because slug mucus absorbs water, you’ll only make it worse by trying to rinse it off right away. Instead, let the mucus dry for a few minutes before rubbing your hands together. Then be sure to give them a proper soap and water cleaning.


Rosy Maple, Small-eyed Sphinx, Tufted Bird Dropping, Giant Leopard, Luna, Pearly Wood Nymph, Polyphemus, Pale Beauty – these are all moths found in New England. The colorful array of names reflects their dazzling diversity. In fact, there are over 2,200 species of moths in Vermont, with around 400 new species documented since 1995! 

Curious to see how many different species of moths are living around you? All you need is a light-colored sheet and a light source. Hang up the sheet outside on a dry still evening. Shine a bright light to illuminate the sheet and wait to see who visits! This is an especially abundant time of year for moths, next week is National Moth Week – learn more and report your findings here

‘Moth’–this one soft word falls so far
short of what the moth-world means;
of moths in number birthed by dark to
flock round torch and lamp and porch,
together thickening air to froth, then
cloth, then weather…

-Robert MacFarlane

Natural History Mystery

A blue frog in Vermont!? 

This frog has the pointed snout and ridges extending down the body of a green frog, but this frog is blue! Although the name suggests otherwise, green frogs can be a range of colors – from brown to tan, and from many shades of green to occasionally blue.

In most green frogs, blue and yellow skin pigments stack on top of each other to display their green color. Very occasionally, a green frog is missing the yellow pigments and appears blue.

Perhaps this coloration is so rare because it could make the green frogs more noticeable to predators like bullfrogs, snapping turtles, great blue herons, raccoons, otters, and minks!

Can you tell which frog is a green frog and which one is a bullfrog?

Happy Summer Solstice!

Happy summer solstice! Today is the longest day of the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere – in Montpelier VT, the sun will rise at 5:06 a.m. and set at 8:37 p.m. This solstice marks the beginning of summer and has been an important phenomenon across cultures for thousands of years. Read about the various solstice traditions from fires to flower garlands in the book The Longest Day: Celebrating the Summer Solstice by Wendy Pfeffer.

Looking for outdoor activity ideas this summer? Four Winds has created a guide with play prompts, materials to have on hand, recommended gear, and non-fiction and fiction books. What will you try?!