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Northland Nature; A November surprise at Jay Cooke State Park

A cave orbweaver spider is pictured recently at Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton. Note the oval-shaped body and long legs. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

In the Northland, we are blessed with many sites that give us a break from development and a taste of the wild scene. Whether it is the national forests or national, state or county parks, there are plenty of locations to go to if we want to get a view of the woods and wildlife.

One such pleasing place is nearby Jay Cooke State Park.

Among the river, ponds, swamps and hills is well grown forests. I have found trips to this park to walk or ski the delightful trails are always great outings. Besides just a pleasant meander on these paths through the woods, the park is a great place to see the wild flora and fauna. I visit here, but these wildlife live here.

In winter, the snow is filled with a plethora of animal tracks telling of movements of deer, fox, coyote, porcupine and hare in the forests, while otters slide over river ice.

In spring, this park is the place to experience beauty of many kinds of spring wildflowers, while warblers flit among the branches.

Walks in the summer woods are filled with thick lush ferns and patches of showy lady slippers mixed in.

And in autumn, deciduous trees show their diverse and rich colors as the days cool.

During my walks here, mostly in summer, I have observed many species of spiders. There are those that build various kinds of webs, as well as non-web making crab and jumping spiders hiding in flowers while fishing spiders stay near the river. It is an expected part of a walk in summer to find diverse spiders, but as the warm weather wanes, they are not as likely.

By November, the sight of these eight-legged critters is mostly a memory. But recently, there was an exception.

While visiting Jay Cooke State Park in early November, I was asked about a kind of spider that was discovered by one of the workers. When I requested seeing the spider, I was impressed that it was still active at this late date.

The spider was found living in a sheltered site: an entrance to the park sewer system. Here, it was warm enough to continue its life. Most likely, insects were present, too, and provided food for this predator. When I viewed the spider in its home site, I was able to identify it as a cave orbweaver (meta ovalis).

Not only was the spider living here, she had also produced an egg sac in her web. The web was the circular type known as an orb web.

Orb webs are very common in the area and we frequently see them covered with dew in fields and roadsides on summer mornings. Orb webs in subterranean sites like this are quite unusual. I have seen their webs before on cliffs and cave entrances, but cave orbweavers are not often found.

Also unlike other spiders that make orb webs, they have oval shaped bodies with long legs and keep their egg sac in the web, not hiding it nearby.

Curious about its continual survival, I returned to this home site a few weeks later after we had received snow and near-zero-degree temperatures and found the spider still in its web with the egg sac. This smelly sewer entrance was protection from the November weather. Will it remain for the coming colder months?

I was glad to see this spider and again observe nature's diversity and resilience and that this harmless and beneficial spider is protected by Jay Cooke State Park.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods," "Webwood" and "In a Patch of Goldenrods." Contact him c/o krohman@duluthnews.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.