BioBlitz. It sounds almost intimidating. I know that’s what I thought the first time I heard of it. It almost sounds like what a scientist is concocting in their lab, or some sort of glitch or natural phenomenon. But in reality, it is a really enjoyable and educational event that we, Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful, host with the BioBlitz Club. At BioBlitzes, our docents take small groups around different locations along the creek, seeing what kind of nature we can find. Trust me, there are so many things that I overlook on a daily basis, when they are happening right under my nose. Whether it’s a bee carrying pollen from flower to flower or a gall on a tree where insects may have infested the leaves, there are so many things to see if we just take a closer look.
This October we were at Coyote Creek Trail up in the Milpitas area. And, despite its simple and humble appearance from afar, there is a lot of wildlife to be seen here along the trail. We had separated into our small groups with a docent, mine being Karan, who is more knowledgeable on a subject that is not even related to his main career than I could ever hope to be on any subject period. We hadn’t even walked 15 yards before he stopped. We walked up to a cottonwood plant that upon first glance, looked like every other leafy plant I had seen so far. But upon closer inspection, I could see that there were hundreds of ants crawling around the base as well as the leaves and stems of this cottonwood. But wait, there’s more. Upon even further inspection, and very good eyesight, I could see miniscule black dots on the underside of the leaves that the ants were crawling around on. “What are those?”, I considered. Well, as it turns out, those are not ant eggs. They are in fact aphid eggs. I then thought, “How are the aphids and ants living together on one plant, and why would they do that if there are so many other plants to inhabit?”. Great question. Turns out these two insects have a symbiotic relationship with one another. The ants feed on the aphid’s sugary excrement (yes, poop) and in exchange, provide the aphid’s and their eggs protection from predators. Just one of the many little nuances you might never notice if you don’t take a second to really observe your surroundings.
Top of cottonwood tree leaf (L) and underside of cottonwood tree leaf (C) by Rae Knapp; Closeup of ant with aphid eggs (R) by Stuart Williams
We then walked about another 10 steps before we found ourselves peeking under rocks and small logs waiting for a slight movement or abnormal color to catch our eyes. Before long, a black blur sped out from under a lifted stone. Its choppy movement coming from a cluster of long legs made it obvious that we were looking at a spider. But after a few moments, Karan pointed out that this was not just any spider. It was a black widow! I have to admit, I think I have seen more of the Scarlett Johanssen version of the black widow than the real kind, so this was quite a treat. He was even able to get it into a little clear container so that we could lift it up and see the red hourglass mark on its abdomen. In fact, in order to get the black widow spider into this container, Karan had to gently poke it around and guide it into the container. Being someone that consumes general media a whole lot more than I come across Black Widows in real life, I was under the impression that they were extremely lethal and poisonous. As it turns out, being bit by one means that I might have symptoms lasting for several hours, but it is typically not a life threatening situation. That being said, the intensity/severity of these symptoms can vary from person to person, and some people have the potential to be much more sensitive to venom than others, such as young children or those who are members of the senior community. So in conclusion, maybe cross "go to a Black Widow petting zoo" off your bucket list for now! Always better to be safe than sorry.
Black widow spider (L) by National Geographic; black widow spider on rock scurries away (R) by Rae Knapp
I always look forward to the BioBlitzes we have each month for all of the reasons hinted at throughout this blog. For one, it reminds me how much more there is to nature than what initially meets the eye. It is comforting in a way to know that as we eat, sleep, and breathe, there are so many other living things doing the same in their own individual ways at that very moment also. Just like we have our own lives to worry about, the ants, aphids, spiders, trees, birds and squirrels are all doing the same. I leave the BioBlitzes feeling just a little bit more grateful and understanding of the nature around us, even considering the fact that we are in the middle of a major city! Should anyone get the chance to attend one, I would strongly encourage them to take advantage of it. Not only will you get a breath of fresh air and a whole lot of additional knowledge, but perhaps even a slightly new perspective.