The sounds and signs of fall are very noticeable now when you are out and about on Mount Desert Islander. Asters and goldenrods are abundant, but a few other flowers are blooming inconspicuously even now. It’s sort of a final “fling” before winter’s presence is harshly announced. From June through September, the tiny eyebright blossoms vigorously but is easily overlooked since it is quite small. The flowers are white, very tiny and profuse. It is a member of the figwort family and often found alongside the trails and dirt roads all over the island.
Of all the asters, the New England aster is my favorite. Its deep purple blossoms make a great addition to the autumn landscape. The showy purple flower rays have golden centers that easily label them handsome. Other asters may be violet, lavender, white, pink, yellow and various shades of these colors, but the New England aster is deep purple. New England asters defy frost as long as possible, so their colorful blossoms are still lovely through October.
Because it is such a beauty, this aster often is cultivated and has a prominent place in gardens. However, I think it is seen at its best as it shines out in its purple-magenta splendor, showing its colorful branches above the swamps, moist fields and along the sides of roads and highways. It usually grows 3-5 feet tall, but sometimes reaches heights of 6-8 feet. Where New England asters grow amid patches of goldenrod, the color pallet is spectacular to behold.
The New England aster has an abundance of high quality nectar and is very attractive to bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. It grows and spreads from perennial rootstocks. About 200 species of aster are found in North America, and most occur in the east.
Tamarack trees growing all over the island are soon to lose their needles; they are our only conifer to do so. This straight, slender tree with lacy needles grows mostly in bog-like areas. Through the winter, it is bare, but as spring arrives, these trees are a delicate green. As fall moves along, the needles change to yellow and gradually fall off, leaving the tamarack bare. All the other coniferous trees keep their needles.
Native Americans called this tree “ka-neh-tens,” meaning “the leaves fall.” The tamarack is our American larch and also is called hackmatack. The wood is strong and makes good posts and railroad ties, for it lasts for a long time when in contact with the ground. Tamarack trees can grow to be 50-60 feet tall.
A big, black bug flew into a friend’s back one evening and really startled him. It looked menacing, and he had no idea what it was. After it arrived at my house in a sealed jar, I indentified it as a toe biter or giant water bug.
This creature is a wide, flat-bodied insect with powerful grasping forelegs and hind legs formed for vigorous swimming. Its total length is 1-2 inches. If you encounter one, be careful how you touch it, for it can give you a severe bite with its strong beak. Toe biters live in freshwater ponds and lakes and prey on insects, snails, frogs and other amphibians and even small fish. They have a habit of flying to strong lights at night, thus giving them their other name, “electric light bug.” In China, there is a giant water bug that is cooked and eaten as a delicacy.
Chipmunks will disappear soon as they settle down for a long winter’s nap. As our days get colder, they come out less and less and finally go to sleep in their well-stocked snug nest underground.
The chipmunk’s nest is about two feet underground and filled with leaves and stored food such as hard nuts and seeds. These little mammals wake up now and again during the winter, they eat a little snack, and then go back to sleep until some warm day in March signals to them that spring has returned, and out they come.
In the early fall, mockingbirds are quite active and noticeable. They establish territories, and then when satisfied with this project, they become quiet and generously inconspicuous for the rest of the winter. When our family moved here back in 1972, mockingbirds were not year-round residents. Now their range even extends north into Nova Scotia and other locations.
Mockingbirds are known for their powers of mimicry, and they can imitate almost every sound they hear. They also are master singers. Look for a robin-sized bird with a long tail, generally gray and white above and white below. Also look for a flashing white patch on the wings and tail as the bird flies off away from you.