Roadside attraction

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitat

Roads are both a blessing and a curse for wildlife (Photo: Colleen Greene, Creative Commons license)


Ever dreamed of going on a safari? Then fasten your seat belt, start the engine, and hit the road. Any road. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts—take the time to look and you’ll spy enough wildlife to satisfy, Bwana.

Sure, some of the creatures will be easier to spot than others… for the simple reason they’re no longer moving.  But I’m not proposing a road-kill road-trip. Trust me, the city streets, shady neighborhood boulevards, highways and byways offer plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching. Naturally, the species on display depend on the size of the road, its location, the season, time of day, and the speed limit.

wildlife and roads, vultures, wildlife watchingLet’s say your motoring down a divided highway, a conduit to and through the all-American suburbs. The big stuff (aka megafauna), such as deer, elk, moose, bears, and even coyotes, can be seen at 65+ mph (although not always in time to either admire or avoid them). Certain birds of prey, red-tailed hawks in particular, can be seen at both speed and distance due to their habit of hanging out high on handy utility poles to scout for snacks. Anything more petite will be visible only if it’s on the shoulder or trying to cross the road. Scavengers looking for a free lunch can be seen out on the open road day (crows, ravens, vultures) and night (opossums, coyotes). That meal ticket can quickly turn the diner into dinner for someone else… and so on.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, groundhogBeyond mowed blacktop borders, in the woods and taller grasses, you’ll find rabbits, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and groundhogs. Based on my own non-scientific observation, to improve your chances of seeing these meso– (medium-sized) species as well as small but brightly colored male songbirds in situ you’ll have to ease up on the gas pedal and let the speedometer drop to 35-45 mph, tops.

A bicycle (or even a horse if you have access to one) would probably set the right pace for a rider to notice mice and voles, lizards, turtles, frogs and toads, as well as female songbirds (who tend to have less flashy wardrobes than their ready-for-the-disco menfolk). The truly diminutive critters—insects, spiders, snails and slugs—are hard to spot at more than arm’s length so it’s best to set off on foot and plan for a leisurely pace if spineless quarry is your goal.  A general rule: the slower you go, the more you’ll see—that’s what makes the backroads more appealing for this kind of trip than a superhighway.

In poetry, novels, song, and cinema people often speak of the allure and romance of roads—the ones that calls us, the ones less traveled, the ones that go on forever, choosing between high ones and low ones. Wild animals rarely have access to books and mp3 players and RedBox kiosks, though, and I’ve never found them to be all that interested in popular culture… so what’s the attraction?

To build a road through a previously undeveloped area, the first thing that happens is clearing a swath of the existing plant community, be that trees and shrubs or grasses or cacti. Once the project is completed (or even while it’s still in progress) new plants begin to colonize the bare soil, creating a plant community that’s different from the surrounding landscape along with an edge where new and old meet.  Disturbing the soil stimulates the germination of seeds that may have sat dormant for a long time waiting for the right conditions. Soil may be brought in from somewhere else as part of the construction process along with seeds from plants that are completely novel in this setting.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitatSince the plants predict what kind of animals will be found in any ecosystem, the new habitat creates opportunities certain wildlife species will exploit… but in most cases it won’t be the species that were living happily in the pre-construction habitat. Edge species will colonize the area, often using the right-of-way as a travel corridor before and after the road is completed. Some organisms will hitchhike to their new home on and in the bodies of larger animals or even motor vehicles. Birds, bats, and flying insects will drop in from above. Wild things are always jockeying for space and there’s no such thing as a vacant lot in nature—at least, not for long.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, pronghornMake no mistake—roads are a significant cause of habitat loss and their presence is detrimental to many types of wildlife. For others, though, the resulting edge provides exactly what they need to thrive. This includes our most familiar next-door nature species. In fact, the reason blue jays, robins, white-tailed deer and other edge-loving species are so common in human communities is because Homo sapiens is also an edge-loving species. Our roads are simply one very conspicuous example of that fact.

The natural world is never static; it’s always in flux and each day there are new winners and losers.  Are roads good or bad for wildlife? It depends on the species. But there’s no doubt they are a boon for wildlife watchers.


Life is better with Next-Door Nature—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Colleen Greene (black bear); e_monk (black vulture); Matt Reinbold (groundhog); MoDOT Photos (edge habitat); Allan Harris (pronghorn).



writing spider with prey, Alan Howell © 2011 used with permission

The writing spider has a signature web that makes species identification easy (Photo: Alan Howell © 2011, used with permission).


Look at your feet. You are standing in the sky. When we think of the sky
we tend to look up, but the sky actually begins at the earth.
~ Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses


I got tangled up in pieces of the sky this morning. Not on purpose, mind you. It’s been unseasonably cool the past week so my aerobic exertions have moved from an indoor treadmill outdoors to a tangle of pathways that wrap around the surrounding neighborhoods.  My earbuds wedged firmly in place, the volume on my iPod turned up loud enough for the bass to create some nice cranial reverb, I walked  toward the road with my head already in the clouds.

I returned to Earth in a hurry, though, when I flew through a spider web strung between a PED XING sign and a maple branch. Come to think of it, the impromptu Elaine Benes dance moves inspired by contact with a cobweb made for a pretty good workout. Just not the one I’d planned.

The impact caused some turbulence in other plans as well; specifically, those of the writing spider (Argiope aurantia) I was destined to meet.  All I had to do was pull wisps of skywriting off my face, hair, and arms, and I was good to go. Charlotte faced a bigger clean up.

When people write in the sky, they use small, agile planes and a device that injects oil into the hot exhaust manifold, creating plumes of dense white smoke. It’s an inherently wasteful process and the results are ephemeral, to put it mildly; the message begins to blur within minutes.  Spider webs are longer lasting—about 24 hours or so—but my eight-legged barnstormer is heavy into recycling. She ate yesterday’s draft last night and used it as the raw material for today’s composition. She does this nearly every night, and it’s a task that takes hours to complete. Now, thanks to me, instead of resting in her hammock all day waiting for dinner to be delivered, she’ll be busy scribbling for the second time in 12 hours.

Her nom de plume comes from a set of silky zigzags resembling text that she inscribes through the middle of a circular insect sieve up to 2 feet in diameter. Known as the stabilimentum, because it was originally thought to stabilize the structure (Latin just makes everything sound so much more consequential, doesn’t it?), her writing now gets mixed reviews.  Some folks think insects are attracted to the bright lacing, the way they would be drawn to a flame or a porch light. Still others believe using a bold white font alerts large non-prey creatures to the presence of the web so they can avoid colliding with it. I realize I’m only one data point, but I’d like to suggest an exception to that second hypothesis:  It doesn’t seem to work all that well for bipedal mammals.

male and female writing spiderThese highly visible orb weavers can’t see very well themselves, but they are attuned to air currents and web vibrations. The male (0.2-0.35 in/5-9  mm) goes so far as to communicate with the much larger object of his affection (0.75-1.1 in/19-28 mm) by plucking and strumming the strands of her web. This tells her the caller is a fella, not a feast. Then again, he may be both. Foellmer and Fairbairn (2003) report that A. aurantia males “invariably” die within seconds of copulating, not because the female kills them, but as a form of sex-triggered suicide (the lengths some men will go to avoid post-coital cuddling!).

Skywriting at 7,000-14,000 feet aims to grab the attention of spectators on the ground, usually to sell them something. When it’s done at 2-8 feet of elevation, it’s intended to capture and hold groceries—in the form of aphids, mosquitoes, wasps, bees, crickets, grasshoppers, and even dragon- and damselflies—long enough to bag ‘em up.

An insect intersects with a web and the resident spider rushes to its side before an escape can occur. What happens next is gruesome, but that’s a bug’s life for you: a quick bite delivers paralyzing venom and begins to turn innards into soup (the substance is harmless to humans, by the way). Then, almost faster than the blink of an eye, spider feet are juggling the hapless intruder until it’s spinning like something out of Cirque du Soleil. When the stunt is complete she’s got a silk-wrapped burrito. Convenient, portable, and ready-to-eat… the perfect snack for a calligrapher who writes and walks on air.


[Shot by Alan Howell, who was in the right place at the right time and had a point-and-shoot camera handy.]
© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Alan Howell of Star Path Images for generously granting permission to use his writing spider photo and video, and also to Matt Edmonds for making his image of a male and female   available for use through a Creative Commons license and by posting it on Wikimedia.