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. 

Tadpoles to Tidepools: A Volunteer Perspective

On an early fall day outside of Essex Elementary School, Four Winds volunteer Breana Fucile prepared to teach Galls Galore. She set out gall specimens on paper plates for the students to observe, and the kids quickly went to work examining each one. Suddenly a giant gust of wind swept through the schoolyard, scattering the paper plates into the air as the gall contents flew in all directions. Shrieks of laughter erupted as the children ran to gather everything back up.

Breana began volunteering for Four Winds Nature Program in 2018. Her husband had been a volunteer for the program when their oldest daughter was in kindergarten. “Stepping outside offers so many opportunities for learning,” Breana notes. A path near the school is often visited during Four Winds lessons and a stream nearby prompts one of Breana’s favorite memories – finding tadpoles with the students. According to her, the stream is a great spot for catching frogs, a fundamental skill of childhood. 

“Every time you teach is a different experience,” she shared, remembering how apprehensive she was with the material in the beginning. She now coordinates the program for Essex Elementary and encourages her Essex volunteers to become familiar with the information but then adapt it to what they and the students are interested in. As soon as she started focusing on the learning activities rather than on sharing information it became much easier for her to lead the lessons. She’s seen the spark of curiosity about nature ignite for many children in her classes over the years, watching that sense of wonder grow. She hopes more teachers are able to take their classes outside to learn and is grateful that Four Winds continues to be part of the learning experience at Essex Elementary.

Breana at Rye Beach, New Hampshire.

From her own childhood, that spark of curiosity was ignited by visiting Rye Beach in New Hampshire. She developed a love for the ocean with the rocky shoreline, and it became a favorite location to explore tidepools and make new discoveries. “Sand beaches are nice, but there is something so serene and unique about a rocky beach with tidepools,” she said.

Even though Vermont is a landlocked state, Breana takes the skills she’s learned from Four Winds and applies them by the coast when she goes there now. She enjoys seeing her own children explore the same tidepools she visited as a child and appreciates that the skills they’ve gained together from their time with Four Winds can be taken anywhere they go.  

Breana’s family exploring tide pools.


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! 

A World of Natural Wonders 

Though it seems very remote, you are less than a mile away from downtown Northfield when you arrive at the doorstep of Natural Wonders Childcare, LLC. Glance down the hill behind you to a beautiful view of the valley below and mountains in the distance. That is the morning commute for the families of children at Natural Wonders, the nature-based, licensed childcare facility tucked on Turkey Hill. It is run by Kathleen Burroughs and Robin Pennington, two well seasoned Early Childhood Educators with decades of experience caring for, supporting, and guiding children outdoors. Each day they care for 12 children, with ages ranging from 6 weeks to 5 years, in full and part-time care arrangements. 

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The magic of Natural Wonders unfolds each day when the children are greeted at the gate to the extensive playscape with endless opportunities to connect with nature. You can hear in their voices the eager excitement to let out the chickens for the day or to offer browse to the goats. Their program follows the rhythm of the seasons and allows children to connect with nature every day. 

“We love to see the way children create, explore, and play in nature,” shares Kathleen. “Nature provides the perfect place for children to develop their natural sense of wonder and curiosity, and to have a level of freedom to explore and make sense of the world around them. Nature is non-judgmental, self-driven, and gives children the commonality to build relationships with peers that they might not otherwise be friends with.”

On any summer morning the children can be found adventuring along the discovery fairy garden path looking for frogs. The mud kitchen has a rotating menu with seasonal ingredients gathered around the yard. Everyone is encouraged to check on what’s growing in the children’s garden each day and discover what is ready to harvest. The sandboxes are in a perpetual state of construction with important projects underway. On the back edge of the playscape sits a lean-to, big enough to host naptime during the warmer months. There are multiple options for climbing and swinging, and a circle of tree stumps that serves as the gathering site for morning meetings. There is even a second outdoor classroom in the woods called the “Beyond” just on the other side of the fence.

As a child-centered, play-based learning environment, the outdoor space offers the children opportunities to build meaningful relationships with the natural world around them and each other. 

The children have the option to sleep in a lean-to shelter, use a compostable outdoor toilet, and experience a fire pit for cooking and keeping warm on chilly days. Although they are outside year-round, they do sleep inside during the winter months. “Our goal is to build a culture whereby each child has a genuine respect, love, and appreciation for the natural world and which inspires each child to become stewards of the land in our communities and beyond.”

In addition to nature hikes, tapping their maple trees, and wilderness exploration, gardening and farming are a huge part of the curriculum. They start seeds inside in the spring and transplant seedlings into the garden together with the children. Over the growing season they enjoy vegetables, fruits, flowers, and a variety of berries from the bushes in the yard. 

Food from the garden is eaten for snacks and lunches. An abundant basil harvest prompts a pesto-based community lunch to be shared. The children regularly pick mint from the garden for tea and make jam together from the berries they collect. 

The hens, sheep, and goats are significant parts of the experience and the children are active participants in their care. Each day they help feed them and give them fresh water. The highlight for many children is collecting eggs each day. Wool from the sheep is used for felting, finger knitting, and bird nesting material. The chickens and goats act as composting machines, and the children see the importance of that process regularly. 

“The best part about the work we do is knowing that we have given each child in our program the best possible experiences outside in nature that they will carry with them throughout their lifetime,” said Kathleen. “Hands-on, uninhibited, and meaningful learning experiences through self-discovery and inquiry are magical and really need to be at the heart of every child’s growth and development!”

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! 

Notes On Vines

Here are observations from retired Four Winds artist-naturalist-educator Susan Sawyer.

There are all kinds of vines — they are plants that don’t grow stems firm enough to hold themselves up, but use other plants (and any other handy support) to cover a lot of ground, get to the sunlight, and grow a lot of leaves and flowers without spending their energy on making strong stems. This summer I’ve been noticing the way the wild clematis near my house was grabbing onto nearby tall grasses. With their leaf stems! I had seen this before, but it hadn’t quite registered — no tendrils at all, but long, growing, flexible petioles that firmly attach themselves to whatever’s handy. 

The leaves grow in pairs, and in this picture one of the two leaves at each node has found a grass stem and wound right around it.

Below is wild cucumber, which has a two-forked tendril opposite each leaf — and coils itself around whatever it touches, tight as a spring. I think it gets the prize for twistiness.

Vetch, a legume (a family full of vines like peas, pole beans, and groundnut) has double tendrils at the ends of its leaves. Here it has a good grip on a buttercup stem.

Bittersweet, like pole beans, doesn’t have special tendrils, but wraps its whole stem around whatever’s handy. Here two are twined together and headed up the gas tank.

Below are river grapes in a small crabapple tree. Grapes will climb trees to get their leaves up into the sun, and after years their long stems might be as big around as your wrist. 

This short survey leaves out another good climbing method — adhesive discs, which ivy, poison ivy, and Virginia creeper use to climb straight up tree trunks, cliffs, and walls. I’m sure there are other strategies. Most depend on the plant being sensitive to touch — the growing tendrils or stem tips wave themselves around (at plant speed) and can feel when there’s something to wrap onto. Smart, those plants. 

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.