When the New Neighbors Have Eight Legs

Silver argiope spider

Sometimes fences make for good neighbors, as the saying goes. But our backyard fence has actually attracted some questionable characters. These recent ones were certainly odd looking, but I felt it might be interesting to get to know them a bit better.  


At first, I thought the web was made by a golden orb spider (Trichonephia clavipes), since I had run into their big webs before (literally) while hiking along island trails. However, on closer inspection the shape and face of the spider weren’t right, and I figured out it must be a silver argiope (Argiope argentata). 


Golden orb spider 


The golden orb spider actually does spin a golden web, and you can see the color if the light catches it the right way. 


Golden orb spider web


After inspecting the spider on our fence more closely, I saw that what looked like a friendly clown face was actually the back of the silver argiope spider. The real face was a lot less attractive, with grasping pincers and a biting mouth. 

Silver Argiope spider face



The silver argiope web has distinctive white zigzag weavings that apparently help stabilize the web. When an insect flies into the web, the spider will feel the vibrations and move to immobilize the insect quickly by wrapping it in silk. Less thrashing around helps protect the web from damage, even though the delicate silk strands are surprisingly strong. 


Once I saw a lizard that had gotten tangled up in a big spider web and torn it up, but the silk strands still held its weight. I don’t think the spider intended to catch it, but maybe the lizard was thinking about eating the spider.  



If a large moth or butterfly gets caught, the silver argiope spider will give it a venomous bite, and then wrap it up in silk like a mummy. Smaller insects might just get restrained in their wrappers without being bitten until feeding time.   


During my research, I learned that the big spider was a female. The much smaller one hanging around the web at dinner time was the male, not a baby. 


Small male and large female silver argiope spiders with a moth wrapped for dinner.


I never saw any mating behavior between the two spiders. They kept that private. I also read that the female eats the male immediately afterwards. 


One day the web and the spiders just disappeared. Very mysterious. I wondered if it was because of a predator, or if it was just time for them to move on. 


They had been entertaining neighbors after all, and I missed them. 

Many VI Winter Birds Are Summer Nesters in the US


      An osprey parent provides some shade for the chicks on a hot afternoon. 

Ospreys, great blue herons and many ducks and warblers are all regular winter residents of the Virgin Islands, but many of them go to the northern United States to breed. It is fun to see familiar birds from the islands when we are up north, especially if they have nests and babies. 


Osprey nests are the ones I notice the most, since they are enormous. Around New York City, I have seen osprey families on the tops of chimneys on abandoned buildings out in the harbor, and on specially built platforms in Jamaica Bay. 


               Ospreys make large, solid nests that they reuse for many years. 


The female osprey will usually lay two or three eggs in late April or May, which should hatch in about a month. Ospreys like to eat freshly caught fish, and the male provides most of the food for the family during the egg incubation and parenting time, sometimes providing up to ten fish a day. When the chicks get bigger, the mother will also do some of the fishing.  


            Osprey parents have to catch a lot of fish to feed the chicks


There are plenty of fish in New York harbor, but it is taxing work to catch so many of them. The chicks may have to wait until after the hard-working parent eats part of the fish first.  The adult ospreys will often carry their catch to a tree out of sight in order to have a peaceful meal before delivering the leftovers to the kids.  


        An adult osprey eats first in privacy before bringing the rest of the fish to the family. 


It takes a couple of months for the young ospreys to learn to fly, and they will still rely on their parents for food for quite a while after that. In the fall, after the young ones can catch their own fish, the family will begin moving south for the winter. They don’t travel together though. The young ones usually leave after their parents, and respond to internal signals that guide them about when to leave and where to go.  

Great blue herons also visit the Virgin Islands during the winter, frequently appearing alone along the shorelines or lurking in the mangroves and wetlands. 


          A great blue heron creeps along the edge of a hidden island pond.

The herons, too, mostly eat fish, but catch them very differently from the ospreys. Rather that diving down into the water from on high and flying off with their prey in their talons, the great blue herons usually stand very still in shallow water until unwary fish come within reach – and then quickly grab their victims with their long bills.      



       A great blue heron will stand in the water and grab fish passing by. 


Though solitary in the winter, during the summer the great blue herons make their nests in large groups called colonies. These are often located in remote places, but the nests I saw recently were on an island in the Mississippi River very close to downtown Minneapolis. This tree had no leaves, so it was easy to see all the nests in it. There were nests in some of the other trees on the islands as well, though not as clearly visible through the leaves. I was thrilled to get to see these dramatic birds all gathered there.   


      Great blue herons nest together in large numbers, forming ‘colonies’. 


Although the individual heron families stay in their own separate nests, being together in a cluster can provide some protection from would-be predators. Nesting on an offshore island will also reduce the threats from land-based intruders.  


           Chicks eagerly await the arrival of a great blue heron parent. 


The young great blue herons stay in the nest for about two months. The parents feed the chicks by swallowing fish and then regurgitating when they get back to the nest. As the chicks get older, they can get very aggressive and competitive about getting the food.  


A parent great blue heron performs an uncomfortable looking mouth-to-mouth transfer of food to its almost-grown chick. 


Many smaller winter migrants, like Black-and-white Warblers, Northern Parulas and American Redstarts, also make their nests in the northeast. They tend to be well-hidden, though, and mostly breed in forested areas. 

I haven’t yet seen any of the warblers raising their families, but it would be fun to learn more about their breeding lives too, and why they travel so far to find the right places for their nests.     


Alien Invader – or Native Species?



I was thrilled when my friend Cheryl sent me a photo of something unusual that had landed on her front step. What could it be?


Actually, I could see right away it was a fat green caterpillar. But I had never seen one like this before. It was close in size to the large striped caterpillars that eat all the leaves off the frangipani trees, but was mostly green, except for a dark band across its face that expanded to look like one big eye in the center of its forehead. Below that was something that looked like a mouth, but wasn’t. Weird.  


Its green body looked similar to a horned caterpillar I once saw on a sugar apple tree, but this one had a smoother shape and only a tiny little horn on its butt.   




After some late-night internet research, I found a photo that seemed like a match – a sphinx moth caterpillar called Erinnyis alope.


Cheryl brought me the caterpillar in a box so I could check it out. I wondered if it was invasive, however it turned out to be a local species that eats the leaves of various tropical plants, including papaya, cassava, jatropha and allamanda. 


I put it in a large plastic crate with some fresh papaya leaves, but it wasn’t interested in eating. Whenever I came by it puffed up its head to make its false eye spot stick out. That’s its way of scaring off predators, and it definitely gave me the creeps. 


I decided to keep the caterpillar inside and see what it would look like when it turned into a moth. At other times I have raised monarch butterflies, as well as frangipani caterpillars, which turn into large gray Pseudosphinx tetris moths. It has been amazing for me to see the different cycles of their transformation. 


The alope caterpillar kept running around the inside of the crate, and not eating. Given its size, I concluded that it was done eating and was getting ready to transform into its pupa stage. That’s probably why it dropped out of the papaya tree near Cheryl’s door – it was looking for some leaf litter to hide in as it entered its next phase. I picked some dead leaves off the papaya tree in my yard and put them in the crate. After that, the caterpillar stopped running and settled down. 


After a couple of days, the caterpillar looked shrunken, and its color had faded. 




By nighttime, it had made its transformation into a pupa state. Next to it lay the remains of its caterpillar skin, which it had slipped out of. 





Outside, under ordinary conditions, the pupa would be hidden in the leaf litter on the ground until it turned into a moth. The pupa forms a hard shell on the outside, while inside the former caterpillar body develops into a new winged creature. It is not completely hard, and it can twitch in an alarming way if it is disturbed. 


The pupa lay in the crate under the kitchen table for 17 days. I’ll admit that towards the end I occasionally moved the crate a bit to see if there was any reaction. It was reassuring to see small signs of life. 


Then one morning I woke up and saw that the pupa shell was empty. The moth must have come out, but where did it go? The crate was not covered, and there was a lot of stuff around the room. It had to be there somewhere.   


After a while I decided to think like a newly emerged moth. It would need to let its wings stretch and dry out. So, it probably didn’t get far. I got down on the floor and spotted it on the edge of a chair leg. 




The moth hung on the chair leg all day, even after I moved the chair out onto the screened-in deck. By the next morning it had managed to fly over to the ledge and sit on a stick.


I took a few photos, and managed to catch it showing off the orange on the inside part of its wings. Otherwise, it looked pretty dull and grey.






After the photo shoot, I took it outside (riding on the stick) and set it on some of the dead papaya leaves hanging from our tree. It was perfectly camouflaged so I hoped it wouldn’t be picked off right away by a bird. 


By the end of the day, it was gone. I hope it flew off to find a mate and successfully continue the cycle of alope caterpillar life.  

Bees Search for Flowers During the Dry Season


A Centris bee and large black carpenter bee

 As the dry days of April dragged on there were few flowers to be seen, and many hungry bees and birds. 


One of the native trees blooming in early April was the Caribbean Dogwood (Piscidia carthagenensis), though the pale pinkish flowers were hard to spot on the tree’s high, bare branches. It drops its leaves before flowering. 


When I stopped along the road to get a photo of one of these trees, I noticed that there were some bees that had also found the flowers. I easily recognized the native female carpenter bees (Xylocopa mordax) because they are large, black, and shiny. After some research I concluded that the smaller one nearby was probably a type of Centris bee, which would be in the same family as the carpenter bees. 


Not too far down the road, there was another tree with light purple flowers, an ornamental pea tree, Gliricidia sepium. There were a few large carpenter bees on this one too, including a male one, which is a surprising burnt orange color, not black. 

Male carpenter bee


It was exciting to see the male carpenter bee – a first for me. They are not around very much because they die quite soon after hatching and mating. The females are more visible as they go around collecting pollen and nectar. They put a mash of pollen and nectar into small holes they make in trees as nests for their eggs. Then when the larvae develop, they will have the pollen mash for food before they break out of their tiny nesting spaces. 


Carpenter bees are important pollinators for open-faced flowers, but some flowers hide their nectar and pollen deep inside, where the big carpenter bees don’t fit. A hungry carpenter bee will sometimes slit open the bottom of a tubular flower and ‘steal’ the nectar, bypassing the pollen and reducing the flower’s pollination possibilities. 

A female carpenter bee taking nectar from the bottom of a Ginger Thomas flower.


A few carpenter bees (and some hungry ants) also found flower buds on a Morinda citrifolia, which is originally from Asia and known locally as painkiller tree. The leaves are reportedly useful for easing muscle aches. In some places it is called ‘noni’ and the green fruits valued for their health benefits. Here they are called ‘starvation fruit’, maybe because the trees grow quickly and produce fruit even under adverse conditions, like after hurricanes. Another idea about the name is that the pale, ripe fruits are stinky and unappetizing, something no one would eat unless they were starving. Or a fruit bat.   

A female carpenter bee on a Morinda citrifolia

 The native bees looking for nectar have to compete with the European honeybees, which were introduced to the islands by colonists. In some situations, honeybees can become so numerous that they dominate the available nectar supplies. 

A honeybee on a black mangrove flower


Carpenter bees are solitary, while honeybees live in hives, and communicate with each other about where to find nectar and pollen. Also, local bees tend to have special relationships with a few trees that they pollinate, and may not go to just any flower. Honeybees are not so discriminating. 


Honeybees can also be quite aggressive. One morning when I put out sugar water for the bananaquits, a bunch of honeybees came by and tried to take over the feeder. The next day there were even more. I put out several bowls and tried to get the birds and bees to use different ones, but there was still conflict.    


A bananaquit annoyed by honeybees at the feeder


At the end of April, enough showers came to encourage a few of the lovely lavender wattapama trees (Poitea florida) to bloom. These trees are special because they are native only in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Unfortunately, their flowers only last for a few days. 

A honeybee and a Centris bee attracted to the wattapama flowers 


When I went to take some photos, I found honeybees visiting the flowers, as well as attractive native Centris lapines bees.  


Centris lapines bees have orange butts

When the islands are parched, it’s nice to help the bees and birds by offering them bowls of water, or sugar water. But it’s also important to keep the bowls clean, so they don’t spread germs, especially as some of the birds might decide to use the water for a quick bath.   



Spring Break Parties Attract Crowds of Wild Birds


When island ponds dry up, trapped fish provide a short-lived bonanza for egrets, herons and other wading birds. The carnival atmosphere lasts until the fish are gone. Then many of the partiers move on to other venues.   


When the dry season is very dry, as it has been recently, and coincides with a seasonal drop in the coastal sea level, many wetlands lose all their water. In areas where ponds are connected to the bays during periods of high water, those connections can dry up and then the fish in the ponds have no way to escape. 


This distressing predicament for the fish provides a welcome feast for wetland birds, especially roaming groups of Great Egrets. 



In the pond near our house, at first there was enough for everyone. The fish were easy to grab in the shallow water, and the resident Green Herons got their share along with the larger Great Egrets. 


Even the secretive Clapper Rails, which usually pick up bugs and small crabs along the edge of the pond, seized this opportunity to venture into the water and drag out some fish. 




But soon things got quite competitive. More Great Egrets arrived the next day, and the larger ones seemed to spend most of their time honking and pushing other birds out of pond spaces they claimed as their territory. They even chased after another egret that was having trouble swallowing a particularly feisty fish. 



A Great Blue Heron came by on the third day to see what all the excitement was about. There wasn’t much room in the pond by then, with more egrets and less water. It grabbed a few fish and quickly moved on.  



A couple of Little Blue Herons also made an appearance but seemed more interested in chasing each other around than actually doing any fishing. They mostly stayed in the trees and watched the action. When they did make it into the pond the other birds didn’t seem very pleased, and pressured them to go away. 



Then some Great Egrets showed up in mating plumage, apparently thinking about activities other than fishing.



 But after the fourth day, most of the food was gone and the influencers had found somewhere else to preen. I was sad to see them go.   

Gray Kingbirds Emerge as Leaders in the Annual St. John Bird Count


There’s been no shortage of bugs, so it’s not surprising that local insect-eaters are thriving.


Gray Kingbirds are known as flycatchers but will also chase bees and a variety of other flying insects. They are often seen perching on treetops, then darting out and back to snatch a bug flying by. I see them most in the morning when the sun lights up the tops of the trees, and the insects that feed up there become active. The kingbirds call attention to themselves with their screechy sounds, a bit like a police whistle. 


The 2020 bird count was actually held after New Year’s, on January 2, 2021. About 45 volunteers helped with the count – experienced birders and their friends and families, plus new recruits, including members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John.


The annual event was organized by the Virgin Islands Audubon Society, under the guidance of VI National Park Ranger Laurel Brannick. To help people prepare, and learn more about birds they might see, the Friends of the VI National Park sponsored a video presentation by Laurel Brannick, with local bird photos by Gail Karlsson. 



Counters spread out in selected areas across the island to record how many different species and birds they could see on that day. After all the report sheets were turned in, they were compiled by Audubon Board Member Phyllis Benton. Once the results were tabulated, Phyllis submitted them to the National Audubon Society for inclusion in a broader analysis of bird numbers, migration and overall health.


Many birds in the Virgin Islands are still recovering from the impacts of the 2017 hurricanes, when there was widespread destruction of forests and a serious loss of food sources for wildlife. 


By now, though, there is much greater availability of berries, fruits and seeds for local doves and pigeons.



There are also flowers around to provide nectar for hummingbirds and bananaquits. 



Lizard-eating American Kestrels reached a high of 37 this year, compared to 12 after the storms. This was the highest number for many years. Last year at this time, pairs could be seen mating enthusiastically around the island. As a result, there are now young birds around St. John that could be ready to start their own families soon.  



This year the Gray Kingbirds topped the chart at 233. Unfortunately, this is still way less than the numbers counted in the years just before the storms. In 2014 there were 607!    


Looking back to the last count in December 2019, it was Brown Pelicans that were the most numerous – 332 pelicans vs. 168 kingbirds that year. This time only 52 pelicans were reported.


In December 2017, after the storms, the pelican count was down to 21. The next year there were 128, which was about normal (in 2014 there were 123). Then there was a big jump to 332 in 2019, so it looked like they were doing extremely well, followed by the dramatic fall this year.



What’s happening with the pelicans? 


It’s hard to say. Pelicans can fly around and move to places where the fish are plentiful. Maybe it’s just that the fishing was good here last year and is better somewhere else now. 


In any event, a one-day count is never entirely accurate. You can see the same birds all the time, and then when you want to count them, some of them are hiding out.   


Also, this year the count day was very windy, and the water was rough around St. John. As a result, the National Park boat was not able to go out, and there were no offshore sightings recorded. That would explain some of the drop in the pelican count.  


Another factor could be loss of the pelican’s customary breeding spots. A kayaker friend reported that the hurricanes mowed down the trees along the northern edges of St. John where pelicans had established nesting areas, and those nests have not been replaced. Maybe some of the pelicans moved away to find better nesting areas. 


Over a period of years, we can sometimes discern clear trends, and sometimes there are just unexplained differences. It will be interesting to see how many pelicans are counted next year.  


Some of the same types of factors may have affected the Brown Booby count this year, which was down by about half from last year. Only 18 were counted this time, compared to 34 in December 2019. 



Although bird lovers can’t realistically provide fish and nests to support water birds, we can become more educated about protecting bird habitats, including mangrove areas that serve as nurseries for fish as well as birds. For land-based birds, we can protect and propagate native plants (and insects) that are important for feeding birds and their babies, as we learn more about the complex ecosystems we live in. 


Sea Grape and Buttonwood Trees Favored for St. John Coastal Restoration

The 2017 hurricanes not only caused massive destruction of homes, infrastructure and livelihoods, but also did tremendous damage to Virgin Islands beaches and shorelines. The powerful winds and storm surges uprooted coastal trees, drove seawater inland, and swept away much of the sand and vegetation. Now they are getting some targeted assistance for long-term recovery.  

For beachgoers, the most noticeable change after the storms was the loss of shade from trees growing along the beaches. The tropical sun can be brutal, and shelter is essential. 



But trees do more than provide welcome shade. They also stabilize the shoreline, so the beaches are not washed away entirely, leaving bare, rocky shorelines. And they also support local birds, bees and animals.  


In April 2019, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John sponsored an assessment of the impacts of the storms on the island’s trees, landscapes and wildlife, which recommended replanting the most severely hit coastal areas using native trees. https://stjohnsource.com/2019/04/24/report-outlines-what-to-plant-in-the-wake-of-a-hurricane/?doing_wp_cron=1609768544.1809489727020263671875


One of the authors of that assessment, local horticulturalist Eleanor Gibney, quickly began propagating salt-tolerant native trees suitable for beach areas. She is currently collaborating with the Virgin Islands National Park on a multi-year replanting project, with funding from the Friends of the Virgin Island National Park. 


The need for stabilizing tree roots has become more critical as sea levels are rising and storms are becoming more intense due to increased ocean temperatures. At the same time, coral reefs are being degraded due to the warmer water (which can lead to the death of the tiny organisms living inside the hard structures we see). Coral reefs also face additional threats from pollution, diseases, and invasive species. 


As a result of coral damage, the reefs along the beaches are providing less protection from battering waves and storm surges. In some areas beach erosion has already led to losses of historical structures and artifacts along the shorelines, and special care has to be taken during the replanting process to protect remaining archeological materials.    


A life-long St. John resident living on a beachfront, Eleanor Gibney was deeply impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. As she wrote in the 2019 assessment report: “…the natural environment, once so seemingly permanent, dramatically changed overnight…landslides, beach erosion and the loss of the extensive coconut groves are starkly apparent and may seem like open wounds…. 


Many coconut palm trees planted by Eleanor Gibney’s parents were among the ones washed away by the storms. However, she concluded that those are not the best trees to replant in order to stabilize the beaches. Their root systems are dense and compact, and do not extend very far beyond the tree trunks. As a result, they are easily toppled as the sandy soil is shifted around them. Another reason not to plant them right on the beach is that their dense root balls can cause problems for turtles trying to dig nests in the sand near the trees. 


Native sea grape trees (Coccoloba uvifera) are a better choice for coastal restoration. They are durable, salt-tolerant, fast-growing and drought-resistant. They put down some deeper roots as well as lateral ones, and large sea grape trees can also provide desirable shade. 



The newly planted trees need some protection, though. Unfortunately, deer and donkeys like to munch on the seedlings. In addition, they have to contend with invasive pests, like stem borers, brought in on landscaping trees imported from South Florida nurseries. 


Sea grapes are not commonly viewed as good for eating but are quite tasty if you get ones that are fully ripe, just as they are ready to fall off the tree. At that point they are a deep purple color. Before they are ripe, they have a sharp tannic taste. 



Buttonwoods (Conocarpus erectus) are other tenacious native trees that can grow successfully in salty areas. They are usually found along shorelines or in brackish mangrove wetlands. They can grow tall, and their trunks often look tough and sinewy when they are subjected to constant coastal winds. 



Buttonwood trees produce clusters that look like brownish raspberries but are actually dry and hard, and not edible. 



Although the sea grape and buttonwood trees are best for planting in the sand, the project expects to add other native trees behind them, a bit further back from the shoreline.  


Many people miss the rows of lovely coconut palms along the beaches. They are not being replanted in the VI National Park because they are not native, although over the years they have become naturalized here. For the most part they do not fit into the romantic narrative of being carried naturally across the ocean by wind and tides to wash up on these shores. Most were brought by people and deliberately planted – because they are fun and attractive, and coconuts are good to eat.   


It would be great for people to also plant more coconut palm trees, but it is best if they are placed further back from the beach, where they are more protected from storm surges and shifting sands, and don’t deter the nesting turtles.