Finding and photographing spiders for the City Nature Challenge (A post for Nova Scotia)

A beautiful Pellenes, found last week at the sand barrens near Greenwood NS.

Finding and photographing spiders for the City Nature Challenge

Hi everyone,

My name is Sean McCann, I am a naturalist and spider enthusiast living in Wolfville Nova Scotia.

I would like to encourage you, during the upcoming City Nature Challenge, to try to find some spiders around your home and in the field that can be included in your iNaturalist submissions!

You may find many spiders just by careful searching, looking on surfaces such as fences, walls, and bare ground. One of the most obvious groups are the jumping spiders. These can be photographed relatively easily, and luckily many species can be identified with just good quality photograph of their patterns.

Two species you may encounter are the introduced Salticus scenicus (zebra jumper), and the wall-loving Playtycryptus undatus (gray wall jumper). Both of these may be found on buildings, but also may be found on trees and fences. They are day-active spiders, and like a warm sunny day to go out hunting.

Keep your eyes out in forested habitats for the large and beautiful forest wolf spider, Hogna frondicola.

These attractive spiders are mating this time of year, and so both males and females can be found out hunting for food and mates. These are large brown spiders with a gray stripe down the back, and often one or two pairs of small dark spots on the abdomen.

If you want to find vegetation-dwelling spiders, try taking an umbrella, holding it under a bush, and vigorously beating the bush with a stick. This is an excellent way to find spiders hidden in the leaves and flowers that might not be readily apparent. You may find web builders such as orb weavers, or perhaps crab spiders this way. Look for Misumena vatia (the goldenrod crab spider) and the introduced Araneus diadematus (diadem orb weaver)

Go out, have fun, and try to get some spider images! I recommend getting images of the dorsal surface (the back) showing all the coloration, and if possible, a view from the front showing the eye arrangement. Enjoy your time finding and observing spiders!

Cheapskate Tuesday 31: Cheapskate Diffuser Mark III

Look how battered and sad these diffusers are. This is why I made new ones, and they are definitely more durable

Ok, just a short post on mods to make basically the same diffuser as the Cheapskate Diffuser MK II, but a bit easier, and ending up with a stiffer and more durable product.

These are sized for YongNuo 560 flashes, might be differently sized for a different light. If so, you wanna follow the formulae found on the instructions for the Cheapskate Diffuser Mark II. Where I have indicated patterns there are hyperlinked PDF’s you can download and print. The patterns will make you ones sized for A YongNuo 560 series light, no need for formulae.


1 clear Creatology plastic poster board 

2 white and 2 black adhesive foam sheets

1 sheet OraCal white adhesive backed vinyl

Some self adhesive velcro (Michael’s charges too much for Velcro, better to get at the dollar store).

First cut out the big badboy out of the “clear” poster board (note that it is not anywhere near clear)

Next, adhere the clear vinyl sheet to the smooth side of the badboy. I am smoothing out air bubbles with a paper towel.

Cut off the excess vinyl

Fold the badboy 4 times so there is a rectangle in the middle, keep the rough side of the badboy facing out. The rectangle in the middle is our light-emitting surface!

See? Now it’s all folded.

Get your 9X12″ adhesive backed foam sheets out, you are gonna need them. Cut them according to these patterns for wide and narrow sides. Gonna need 2 wide blacks, 2 narrow blacks, 2 wide whites, and 2 narrow whites. You should be able to get one wide and 1 narrow from a single sheet of foam, so you will need 2 white, 2 black in total.

Stick the horrifying things on, black outside, white inside.


Make sure it is all folded up nicely, add some velcro as needed.


That’s it! Now you have a lot of wasted plastic and such, but you can figure out something to do with it I am sure. It really makes a difference to the durability.


Wide (ish) macro continued: The EFS 24 mm STM

So yesterday I covered wide-ish macro with the 18-55 kit lens, so today I will go over a lens that I have found to be much more promising and fun: the EFS 34 mm STM. This is a lens that Gil Wizen turned me on to, and boy was he right. It is a great focal length, fairly fast (F 2.8), is VERY small (a so-called “pancake” lens) and is very inexpensive.

Closeups without tubes

Even without being used on tubes, it focuses quite closely, and is suitable for all manner of closeup photography. Here are a few examples of the lens being used without tubes:

This is a pretty straightforward (not too creative) use of the lens: a closeup of a small garter snake. The close focus allows an intimate look at the reptile and some of the background.


Alaus oculatus, shot in Ontario. One thing you will notice is the rainbow-like flare, I am not sure if this is common to all copies, or if it just because my rear element has a small crack in it. Whatever it is, I like it.

In this shot of Prionyx, you can see the flare crop up again.

A damselfly at dawn.

Enoplognatha ovata,with killed Ammophila. In this shot, the foreground details show good focus and contrast, and the sunstar is 7-sided and diffuse, which I find infinitely more attractive than the hexagon of the 18-55.

Closeups with tubes

A ways past dawn, the flare from the sun has less colour, but is still kind of awesome.

This jumping bristletail looks great in the evening light

Catherine with a snakefly (Agulla sp.)

How to make it work

So I hope the above examples have convinced you that the 24 mm is a great lens for some closeups that are relatively wide compared to a standard macro lens. If you do decide to embark on trying this or the 18-55 or similar lenses, you will run in to the problem of lighting your subject…You could try a handheld flash, but I found this a bit difficult to use due to the proximity of the subject and the need for a steady base down low. What I ended up doing is modifying the Monster Macro Rig to mount the camera body to the rail, and using the magic arms on the rig to position the diffused flashes. This is a bit cumbersome, but I found that it works quite well. I have not done a lot of real environmental shots with this rig however, mostly incorporating wider views of the sky and trees rather than the nitty gritty of the vegetation. If I do manage some of these tougher shots, it could be that the Monster Rig is just too cumbersome to maneuver in close quarters.

Cheapskate Tuesday: (wideish) macro part 1, the 18-55 kit lens

When I have not been blogging for a while, I usually start posts off with a bit of self-flagellation, followed by apologies and a promise to do better in the future. But to heck with that, what about a bit of shameless self-promotion instead? Nah, that does not work either.

But something wakens Ibycter from her mighty slumber, and that is as shameful desire to take part in Science Borealis’ People’s Choice Award:

Now, for the self-flagellation: By no means can I hope to be the people’s choice in this, or anything, as my blogging has been abysmal the  past year. But I have been doing regular sci comm activities on Twitter where the majority of our current fieldwork on black widow spiders has been communicated. Of course, I have been throwing in a bunch of photography and the like, and often post images taken during my early morning sojourns to the fieldsite and beyond.

This season, I have been wanting to explore in more depth the possibilities of wide angle macro with an SLR. Last year, I was attempting to do so with the venerable A720IS, but I was getting really tired of having to trigger flashes via slave mode (it does NOT work well in the sunlight!).

So what wide lenses do I have? Well, the widest has got to be the old 18-55 kit lens, and often-derided, but actually quite nice little stabilized zoom lens, sold with many Canon kits (other manufacturers often have one too). My copy is a little on the old side, and the autofocus no longer works, but it should serve well for playing with.

So I slapped together a hideous contraption, added 12 mm extension tubes, and took it out a few times this season. I will show results in the wide, wideish, and definitely not wide focal lengths to give you an idea what I was able to achieve.

Definitely Not Wide

The 18-55 on 12 mm extension tube, zoomed fully to 55 mm. At this focal length, the lens serves well as a moderate focal length macro lens, with decent colour rendition and acceptable sharpness. This is an image of what I believe is Megachile perihirta.


Here again at 55 mm, the lens shows good characteristics for macfophotography. The downside is the hexagonal rendition of out of focus highlights (in this case the sun)…Even stopping down to f22 will not round out these edges significantly. My advice is avoid such situations when shooting with this lens.

This image of Scleropogon bradleyi (a big late summer robber fly) is also shot at 55 mm. Pretty decent sharpness, not too bad with colour rendition and contrast.


This image of a western red-backed salamander I shot at 25mm. It is wide-ish bringing in a bit of the background.

This image of Prionyx canadensis (a sphecid wasp) was shot at 27 mm. It brings in a decent amount of background, showing that this was shot by the water at dawn. Note the hexagonal highlight below the wasp’s head. This is a harbinger of bad things to come…

Another shot of the Megachile male, showing it in front of Albert Head Lagoon. This was shot at 25 mm, and I was quite impressed with the contrast.

A group of Ammophila resting on Puget Sound Gumweed. This I shot at 28 mm, and I do like it…


This is a shot at 18 mm, as wide as it goes. Yikes! Look at all that crap! This focal length is very close with a 12 mm tube, and the point of focus is very near the front element. This means that crud in, on, under and around the front element is fairly well in focus. Being a zoom, the interior of the lens is definitely not pristine. This problem is exacerbated by the need to pump light close to the lens, resulting in ugly flaring of the crud as the front element is obliquely illuminated. I ended up removing the front element for a good cleaning, but the problem has not entirely disappeared. It is more manageable though.


Here is a shot with less sky, again at 18 mm. This shows nicely how the background is not fully blurred, and the scattered logs and moss of the habitat are visible.


What would a post be without a Coelioxys? Here is one on Island View Beach, sleeping on grass. This too was shot at 18 mm, and brings a bunch of the background elements into semi-focus.

I will sum up in a future post, but for now, let me state that the 18-55 is an underrated lens. It is tricky to use at the widest setting, but at moderate and long focal lengths is a decent stand in for a macro lens. The hexagonal highlights are not very attractive, but given care as to the field of view and lighting, it is very usable for both short tele and wide-angle macro. I have not tried it with autofocus, as my lens will not do this anymore (maybe I will get the guts to rip its guts out one day and fix it), but at the distances you will have to light macro subjects at, autofocus would be more of a hindrance.

Tomorrow, I will cover another option for cheap wide (ish) angle macro, which I actually found to be much more enjoyable and higher quality than the 18-55. I will also cover briefly how I used both of these lenses.

#TeamBlackWidow is back in the field!

This post will be an update on #TeamBlackWidow...As you may have guessed, based on following the #TeamBlackWidow hashtag on Twitter, we have arrived back in BC and are engaged in the early stages of our season’s fieldwork. Catherine and I are set up in a really nice basement suite in a house in the countryside (owned by arachnologists!) and are very much enjoying the new space (compared to our 400 square feet in Toronto).

We have been to our fieldsite several times for reconnaissance and mapping, and have staked out quite a few logs on the southern portion of the beach for observation.

The point prefaced with L2XX are new territory we have mapped out, and are largely not congruent with our 2016 observation sites

So what have we found so far? Well, the spider season this year is much delayed compared to what we saw last year, with no females with egg sacs, and most of the spiders just beginning to fatten up on springtime bees and flies.

Only this past week have we seen any adult males at all, with most males we have found being only penultimate (one molt away from maturity).

The males all have the typical “winter male” form, being larger than summer males, and quite dark, much like an immature female.

By way of comparison, we saw our first mature male and our first egg sac on April 20 of last year. This year, as of today, we have only seen two mature males, and not a single egg sac. The weather has been cool and often rainy, and the widows are off to a slow start.

With these conditions, we have not been focusing on field observations, instead working to prepare a set of experiments to perform before we have to return to Toronto in June.

Catherine loading spiders into field cages, assisted by Darwin, one of the cats who lives here.


A roundup of recent shots


The spider fieldwork Catherine and I have been doing at Island View Beach progresses slowly. Natural history observations and experiments take up most of our nights, but I have still been getting the opportunity to do some photography and arthropod outings here and there. Here is a sampling of some recent shots that I think you might enjoy.


This is Island View Beach, near our fieldwork site. It is a gorgeous beach, and a rare habitat type: dune vegetation is in short supply around here.


One of the rare plants to be found on Island View Beach is the yellow sand verbena, a gorgeous dune plant with lovely-smelling flowers.


This moth, the sand verbena moth (Copablepharon fuscum) depends on the yellow sand verbena, and is endangered. Catherine is working on a blog post about the controversy surrounding this species.


On a recent outing to the beach in the daytime, I was very excited to find this robber fly, which I believe is Laphria franciscana. Wonderful blue eyes!

I have still had my eye out for spiders, and this Misumena vatia with a honeybee was a lovely find in Uplands Park.

I have still had my eye out for spiders, and this Misumena vatia with a honeybee was a lovely find in Uplands Park.


I have been finding some bee flies lately resting on grasses. Here is one I shot with the A720IS.

This Lorquin's Admiral we saw at Island View Beach, resting on a rose bush

This Lorquin’s Admiral we saw at Island View Beach, resting on a rose bush


Nighttime fieldwork on Cordova Spit allowed me to shoot this Ammophila against the darkening sky.


The next morning, I found this purplish copper resting on a dead flower.


I also found a beautiful potter wasp, an insect I do not often see resting on vegetation.


During nightwork on the beach, I found this mother woodlouse with a load of babies.


This sleeping aggregation of Coelioxys and Ammophila was particularly impressive. I wish I had been able to shoot hem at dawn!


Early this morning at Mt. Tolmie, I found this beautiful little cuckoo wasp sleeping on some grass.


A stinkbug against the dawn sky.


This lovely cuckoo bee is either an Epeolus or Triepeolus…I found three of them at Mt. Tolmie this morning.


Weekend Expedition 66: Leslie Spit


We finally made it out to Tommy Thompson Park, AKA Leslie Spit, a natural deposit that has been added to by the City of Toronto with an ongoing filling operation. The terrain is perfect for spider hunting, as it is full of rubble and weedy vegetation. It looks like a wonderful place to explore, and probably offers great habitat for migrant raptors as well. Catherine and I went out to find some spiders, and whatever else there was to be found!


Rubble and weeds! What else could a naturalist ask for!


A gorgeous little garter snake!


A tiny philodromid, hanging out on grass



Awesomely cryptic crab spider (Thomisidae) on a Queen Anne’s Lace


Tough to notice these!


Probably the most impressive spider find of the day, a big Amaurobiid we found under rubble


Chelicerae to die for!


This big gal was very cooperative for photos


Was super excited to find my first Canadian Crematogaster colony! Check out the awesome spider in there, which Catherine has a post on!


I reckon this to be Crematogaster cerasi, due the two prominent hairs on the pronotum. A mostly tropical myrmecine genus, this is one of two Canadian species.


Here is an amaurobiid with an eggsac


And a giant house spider (Eratigena atrica) with eggs.


A very bright woodlouse.


A beautiful Pardosa, much like we found last week at Humber Bay.


Catherine after a few hours of spidering!

An Arachtober Spider Outing


My smartphone sucks, probably as much as my smartphone photography technique!

On a bright sunny Sunday afternoon, Catherine and I made our suburban shopping rounds to keep ourselves fed (downtown Toronto is bloody expensive!), and then headed out to Humber Bay to find some spiders!


All over the beach we found these awesome gray wolves…Perhaps a Pardosa? Probably. There are a bunch of dark Pardosa in these parts. 


Getting them to pause for a photo was tough, as they were warm and in the mood to run.


This Hogna-like wolf spider was much more accomodating! Super pretty as well.


These spiders are difficult for non-experts to ID…I sent the pictures to an awesome wolf spider identifier I know, but I am not sure if she will respond.


A juvenile Phidippus audax, with surprisingly orange spectacles!


We found a few of these araneids, which we figure to be Zygiella atrica, and introduced one from Europe


Here is the male of Zygiella atrica, which we found adjacent to a female’s web.


The characteristic orb web of Zygiella. Note the missing sector at the top left.


A Philodromid looks awesome on a fall leaf.


Catherine found a few Larinioides hiding out in leaves.


Near a lighted building, we found our expected plethora of tetragnathids and Larinioides in almost communal webs. We also found a bunch of tiny dictynids, which I did not get any shots of.


Some of the Larinioides were quite light in colour. We need to collect a few sometime, as there are a couple species here in Toronto.


We even found a big old Castianeira, who seemed to be doing quite well living under the lights!


Agapostemon aggregations!!!


OK, where we last left off, I was at Humber Bay on Saturday morning, looking for some sleeping hymenopterans. Other than the Polistes, I was not having much luck, but after the dawn light had past, I wandered a bit inland from the shore, and found this:


Yep! Your eyes are not deceiving you! That is a cluster of sleeping male Agapostemon virescens, one of the most beautiful solitary bees. I have a soft spot for shiny insects, and these bright little jewels fit the bill.


On Saturday, I found at least 4 such clusters, each on a mature Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), and the largest cluster having about 40 bees within.


I tried many different types of shots, with the 35 and the 100 mm, but it was somewhat frustrating as it was windy, the sky was uniform blue, and the bees were waking up.


I knew I would have to come again at dawn to catch these against the dawn sky….


On Sunday I returned, this time knowing what to look for.

I photographed a couple of clusters, changing angle and lighting to change the mood.

On this one, note the snail appearing over the top edge…It seems to be in many of the subsequent frames.


Here is one with a diffused light from the left only.


And with the reflected sun from the water. The Canon 100 mm (non-L) doesn’t do highlights nicely!


That snail is really making the rounds!


The bees are starting to disperse, and the snail is exploring its options.


Before they all left, I took the time to get a closeup.


One on the finger!


Later in the day, I saw them going about their business as normal. I have read that these bees do this type of aggregated sleeping, and I had dreamed about it, but have never seen pictures of it before!

In Toronto!


Again I must apologizing for the lack of posts recently. Catherine and I have arrived safe and sound in Toronto, and are installed in our new apartment downtown. I was not very prolific with the photography on our drive across the country, but here is a brief photo chronicle to fill everyone in…This story starts in BC and ends in a cliffhanger here in Toronto, so bear with me!


Some of the last of BC’s mountains we saw, near Mt. Robson


We were both relieved that the killer storm that had followed us from Vancouver was behind us!


In Jasper, the elk were on hand to say farewell.


After stopping in Edmonton to see friends, we went to see if we could see some bison on the lone prairie. Sure enough, there were some!


Bury me not here…I think I would rather be buried in the rainforest. Or at least fed to the vultures!


In Northern Ontario, which is actually most of Canada, we just had to stop here!


Arriving south of Sioux St. Marie, we spied this awesome Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor).


And here we are in our new digs!


This is the view from our new place.


I did not really do a lot of shooting in the first week or so we were here, but did get a few pic in when I went to visit Catherine’s new lab in Scarborough. Here is a beautiful male Pelegrina proterva


And an Eastern yellowjacket killed by a crab


Here in the east, there are a lot more membracids to be found. This is Campylenchia latipes


The other exciting thing to be found is a lot more agelenids on vegetation. This is some kind of Agelenopsis.


Our wishes for dock spiders came true when we went out to the Entomological Society of Ontario meeting at the Queen’s University Biological Station north of Kingston. Here is a moderately sized one on the dock at dawn!


With loons calling in the background, this shooting was idyllic. Way nicer than the screams and shouts of drunks we are getting used to in downtown Toronto!


W emet a great group pf people at ESO, and I am a big advocate now for students joining up for a great conference experience. Next year is in Sioux St. Marie.


Catherine gave a great talk about Twitter for outreach, and I spoke about some of my yellowjacket work.


We have also noticed the abundance of mimetid spiders (pirate spiders) here in Ontario. These awesome spiders are spider predators as well as kleptoparasites.


This conference was a great introduction to Ontario entomology!


In the time since the conference, I have made a couple of outings…Once to High Park (my old stomping grounds), although I did not cover much of the park. I have noted the abundance of Myrmica rubra with some consternation. Here a worker is tending another membracid, this time Publilia concava


I did see a beautiful alydid, but I am not sure which species.


The one sleeping hymenopteran I found in High Park was this gorgeous Nomada.


And that brings us to this weekend! On Saturday, I went out to Humber Bay Park, another of my favourite places from when I was a kid (we didn’t live too far away). It is a great place to see the sunrise over the city. I, of course, was looking for sleeping insects and things.

This male Polistes dominula shows off his beautiful colours against the sunrise.


We are now in the land of the biggest jumpers in North America! Here is a big (but probably not mature) Phidippus audax.

So this brings us to the point where I found something  I had dreamed about, but never thoughy would come to pass….Check out the next post for that!