Some people might have developed a fear of tarantulas from scenes like this in an old James Bond movie, but as Save Mt. Diablo naturalist Michael Marchiano explained, Tarantulas are mostly harmless to humans, packing just enough venom to paralyze a cricket or small insect.
October is usually mating season for Tarantulas, so Michael and Save Mt. Diablo organized a tarantula hike to help people better understand and protect them. These beautiful and delicate creatures usually make their mating appearance on local trails in October. However, the drought pushed them to appear starting in late July. The males have been hiding and growing. When they shed their exoskeletons one last time, after about 5-12 years, they head out like little ninjas, looking for a mate. They have to be stealth, because there are many predators looking for them. Their main weapon is their microscopic hairs, which they can shoot off in to the eyes of attackers.
To find tarantulas, we met at the Mitchell Canyon staging area, and we started the hike on the Mitchell Canyon Fire Road. We eventually followed the Blackpoint Trail for a little bit, before retracing our steps back.
As we hiked, I noticed that the trails were dry and dusty, just like you'd expect at the end of a hot summer. The grasses were baked, and the oaks looked weary and fragile. It was hot, even in the late afternoon, and a few flies buzzed us as we marched up the trail. There are quite a few grey pines along this part of the trail. Their red bark stood out among the golds, browns and dull greens of the late fall.
We were looking for female tarantula burrows. Michael described what they looked like, and soon we found one. The females nest in burrows in the ground, about 12-18 inches deep, and line their holes with a silky mesh. During the mating season, the male tarantulas roam until they find a burrow. They taste the silky web, and if the taste indicates a mate ready female, the male taps on the delicate threads.
About 20 minutes in to our hike, after having seen a number of female burrows, we came across a lone male tarantula in the middle of the trail. With a good number of hikers marching up and down the trail, this little guy might have been in danger of being stepped on. Just getting to this point in his existence, he's survived long odds. Born the size of a pinhead, in a brood of hundreds, he's overcome predators, and his own hungry siblings, to have a chance to mate.
We gave him enough space to find a female, but his spider sense told him to keep moving. We watched him take a look around and then scurry back to the relative safety of the brush right off the trail. Click here to see how tarantulas mate. The male risks getting eaten by a hungry female after mating. If he manages to escape that fate, he has other dangers lurking besides the heavy boots of hikers. The female tarantula hawk can swoop down and paralyze the wandering tarantula with her sting. She then drags the immobile but still living creature in to dark burrow, where she deposits an egg on his abdomen, and then buries him alive. The paralyzed tarantula can live up for six months without food. But after approximately one month, the tarantula hawk larva hatches. It knows to eat the tarantula from the outside in, leaving the vital organs for last, so the food will stay fresh. But, nature's pull to find a connection and mate drives the male to take all these risks. And off he goes, a gladiator for love.
I watched the little guy safely disappear in to the scrub as we continued our climb. His search was not over. Male Tarantulas can roam as far as several miles in search of a mate. For this guy, after years of living in a dark cave eating bugs, even the risk of crushing boots, the sting of a tarantula hawk or the powerful jaws of a raccoon won't slow him down.
While we didn't see any more male tarantulas, another gift appeared. Light from the setting sun was just starting to touch the hills across the valley. Mitchell Rock was dark in the foreground, but the hills glistened like a giant treasure chest.
As the sun was disappearing, the moon showed up early. There was an epic show down, and the moon eventually won the battle. The sun bowed and begin to slip away, but not without sending a last generous burst of warmth and color.
As we walked back down the trail, the last of the golden light flashed across the distant east bay hills. In the deepening shadows of the grey pines and live oaks, we stepped carefully, knowing that a gentle and amorous tarantula might be right around the corner, waiting for his moment...