Web construction

Country Sights and Sounds
“Web construction is considered to be blindly instinctive. Yet first time-builders begin by making quite primitive little webs, and only attain perfection in the course of time”


DARK-WINGED arrows cut through the gloaming; first one, a lone pathfinder testing the way, then several together, unleashed from the woodland quiver, sent flying from an invisible bowstring worked by a mysterious hand. We know more about bird migration than the ancients ever did. They had woodcock flying to the moon, and when the same were witnessed falling upon the masts of ocean-going ships this belief was reinforced. Where else could the birds have come from?
It is the lengthening of daylight hours that sends the migratory woodcock on their way. That much we know and understand. But regarding this seasonal shift to the east, how do the birds know which way to go? And why leave at dusk, away from the setting sun and into the darkness?
Alfred Lord Tennyson, who must have drawn his words from the very wind that stirred the birds to flight, wrote how they
“Change their season in the night and wail their way
From cloud to cloud, down the long wind the dream
Shrill’d; but in going mingled with dim cries
Far in the moonlit haze among the hills.”
I think I know how he felt, and what it was that moved that grand poet, standing there on the open heath, adjacent to the remains of an eviscerated woodland (the wooden bones of which lie, bleaching, in the wake of the mechanical harvester), with a softening breeze on my face and a maze of broken cloud overhead; it was a gentle evening, with muted colours and that breeze blending birdsong with its own restful tune, and there still, though now unseen, the sound of many wings.
Over the coming days those same wing beats will be the herald of spring in far-off parts of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Strange, and moving, to think of those frail few feathers launched over hills and woods, then coastal waters, the open sea and beyond. And somewhere, on a small hill thousands of miles distant, a man listening for that lightly rasping flight, his heart gladdened at a quickly moving starlit shadow.
Before they reach their destination the woodcock must face the barrage of gunshot in one place after another, for in other lands there are laws less rigid than those here. They did well to survive the winter, for not only are they considered a sporting quarry on account of their swift and determined retreat from the hunter, they are said to be delicious roasted and served on toast. Some cook them entire, apart from the feathers, head and legs, being of the opinion that served thus the flavour is considerably enriched. Others draw them before roasting, not finding a plate full of entrails particularly appealing. I would rather leave the woodcock alive.
The following morning nothing stirred. Even the little songbirds were strangely silent, as if mourning the departure of their foreign friends. I walked through a veil of low mist, across that same heath, but now all was quiet and still. The early morning sun lit up the few early flowers of gorse and spangled them with tiny rainbows.
It is mornings such as this when we really appreciate the vast number of spiders that live around us. And this one morning, as the fog congealed to form a vague hoar frost, every fibre of every web was edged with silver.
The owners of the webs, who had toiled industriously for thousands of collective hours, had retreated into folds of tree bark and grassy tufts where they sat rigid and unmoved. The spider population is as great as it can be. However much food is available, the spiders will increase or decrease their numbers accordingly.
Web construction is considered to be blindly instinctive. Yet one man who studied spiders noted that first time-builders ‘begin by making quite primitive little webs, and only attain perfection in the course of time’. And older spiders that had their spinnerets removed (in the interests of science) took to hunting by sight.
There will be spiders where the woodcock land, their webs, too, etched with ice. We fly to Brussels today, travelling in the same direction as the birds.