Asters are roadside stars

In the past couple of weeks, I have been traveling in Newfoundland and enjoying the fantastic scenery there, the wonderful wildlife that abounds everywhere and the friendly people who live there. Only in my lifetime have roads been built all over the island, so traveling around the country is easy. Roadside flowers were profuse and a delight to see. In Northern Maine as we headed home, the deep purple New England asters were very special to see now. They also bloom here on Mount Desert Island.

Of all the asters, the New England aster makes the most bold and beautiful addition to the autumn landscape as it blooms alongside the road or in a sunny field. It deserves to be called handsome, for the showy ray flowers are bright purple with bright yellow centers. Other asters are violet, lavender, white, pink, yellow or various shades of these colors, but the New England aster is purple.

Because it is such a beauty, this aster is often cultivated and in a prominent place in many gardens. However, I think it is seen at its best as it shines out in a royal purple splendor with its branching clusters of purple-magenta above the swamps, moist fields and alongside island roads. It usually grows 3-5 feet tall.

New England asters have an abundance of high quality nectar and are very attractive for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. It grows and spreads from perennial rootstocks.

Friends of mine who live here on the island caught sight of what they identified as a hog-nosed skunk moving about on their lawn and in the bushes. This animal is normally found in Texas, so unless it is someone’s escaped pet, it’s hard to believe it could be here. Often, a large, striped skunk with excessive amounts of white gets misidentified. Unless my friends get a good picture of it on the lawn, it will be an unidentified creature. As the old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Taking a photo nowadays is especially easy with almost everyone having a cell phone with them at all times. Don’t forget to use it for wildlife.

Three gray jays came rowdily over to us one day in Newfoundland as I was taking a flower photo. They were a boisterous group not at all like our local blue jays. Gray jays are much bigger and very curious birds. I first saw them in Baxter State Park when I was on a camping trip years ago. We were having a picnic lunch, and the birds joined us at the picnic table hoping to grab a sandwich. They are seen occasionally here on MDI, but they seem to be shyer than in Baxter.

One day in Newfoundland, we were exploring an old driftwood fort on a remote beach when we caught sight of a mink scooting by near the tide line. Patience won out, and we managed to follow its wanderings and to get good looks and a photo of it as it ran along on the rocks. These mammals are very fast.

Although about the size of a ferret, these mammals are more robustly built, and their fur is dense, thick, soft and glossy brown. In some light, it looks almost black. The toes of its hind feet are slightly webbed to help it move in the water. Mink can dive and swim underwater up to 100 feet.

Mink also are wanderers and occupy diverse habitats but are seldom seen far from water. They tirelessly wander a wide range searching for their prey of fish, frogs, turtles, snakes, mice and other food. Their sense of smell is very highly developed, and they are skillful hunters.

Mink are elusive and not easily found, but someday when you are not expecting them, there they are. The day we saw one on the beach, we saw two others in different places. A mink family stays together for the summer. If you want to see mink, sit quietly near some pond or stream or beach, wait and watch.

Watch for yellowlegs in island marshes these days. Look for migrating dowitchers, too. They are medium-sized shore birds with a long bill. Guillemots are beginning to change into their white winter plumage when they look very different than in their black summer plumage. Cormorants begin to migrate this month.

The small, yellow flower called “butter and eggs” blooms even now and provides food for bees. The colorful harlequin duck may appear this month. I did get to see two of these ducks when I was in Newfoundland last week. They are quite beautiful when you see them up close. On the waters at Schoodic is a good place to see them.

A walk at Wonderland on Saturday treated several hikers to the sight of six juvenile black-bellied plovers. These migrants were nice birds to see even in their fall plumage. Warblers and shorebirds are more colorful and interesting I think when they are in their spring plumage. It’s also harder to recognize them in their fall plumages. These shorebirds in their breeding plumage are striking to see, for the males have a whitish crown, black faces and belly and white undertail coverts. In the fall, they are grayish overall. In the summer, they are found on the Arctic tundra. In the winter, they are found on southern beaches and coastal areas. When you take walks at the shore at this time of year, you are apt to see migrating shorebirds. If you want to have them identified, send photos of them to me or the Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary director for identification.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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