Pickerel weed is especially beautiful this month on island ponds as its spikes of blue-violet flowers, surrounded by arrow-shaped leaves, rise above the water. Once winter releases its icy grip on our island, the seasons seem to rush along, and we need to rush out and enjoy them.
A nice little plant to search for these days is the sundew, one of our native carnivorous plants living in moist areas. Although it is very small and easily missed, it is quite fascinating, for the tiny plant catches insects and “eats” them. The plant is only a few inches tall, and the round or spatula-shaped leaves are covered with red hairs, and at the end of each hair is a gland which exudes a sticky glue-like substance. It looks like a drop of dew resting there in the sunlight. If an insect lands on the glue, it gets stuck, and the plant digests it with the help of digestive juices.
Another carnivorous plant also may be found in moist island environments, and that is the pitcher plant. Its tall, reddish blossoms stick up above the sphagnum bogs in various places on Mount Desert Island; some are even easily visible from the roads bordering a bog. As interesting as the blossoms are, I find the large pitcher-shaped leaves even more so. The hollow pitcher-shaped leaf is reddish green on the outside and pale green streaked with crimson on the inside. The leaves are broadly winged and hooded and are filled with a watery liquid. The raw meat appearance and decaying odor of the plant attracts insects to come and quench their thirst, but once inside, the insects find escape impossible. The footing is insecure, and the bristly hairs of the leaf point downward to prevent insects from crawling out. This plant seems to need nitrogen more than most flowers, so its gets these compounds from the decaying insect bodies. The pitcher plant is well worth looking for in order to see the striking blossoms and unusual leaves and to learn about its interesting lifestyle.
Lightning bugs make summer nights magical with the males blinking their lights in the air and the females answering them from their hiding places on the ground. As summer commences, fireflies go into a pupae stage for a couple of weeks and then emerge as the adults we see blinking in the air on warm summer nights. The female usually stops blinking after she has mated, but in one species of fireflies, the female signals to males of other species and when one comes near, she eats him!
The waters around MDI are a never-ending source of interesting creatures. Basking sharks, huge fish up to 45 feet long, sometimes get brought in by fisherman in the summer. These large sea creatures strain plankton from the water, as do baleen whales, and they often travel in groups numbering up to 10 sharks. In spite of their size, they are docile and pretty much harmless. The shark swims lazily along with its mouth open, letting the water stream through the gill opening. The “strainer” catches the small floating food that they eat. Because of overhunting, the basking shark population has really declined. Before petroleum was discovered, these sharks were sought after for their livers, which yielded 60-80 gallons of oil used for lamps.
This is a very good time to look for shore birds on local mud flats and along the shores of MDI, and eider families are fun to watch as they feed in the saltwater not far from shore. The females are the dark birds; the males show a lot of white and are quite handsome and sturdy looking sea ducks.
If you are out berrying some day and come across a slender green snake in the branches of the berry bushes, don’t be alarmed. This is one of the five snakes found here. All are harmless. The list includes the red-bellied snake, garter snake, ringneck snake, smooth green snake and milk snake. The colorful milk snake is the largest and really the handsomest of them all. It lives in both open country and in woodlands from sea level to the mountain tops. It is a shy snake, but its colors and variegate pattern make it inconspicuous against a background of fallen leaves and grasses. The belly of the milk snake reminds me of a black and white checkerboard or the keys of a piano. If you find a snake anywhere on this island, look at it, photograph it and let it live its life in peace. Their food habits are quite useful as far as humans are concerned, and they are all harmless, interesting creatures in the wild. A garter snake in your garden is an especially good thing, for they like to eat slugs.
The small red-bellied snake is quite beautiful, but it is very secretive. My usual interaction with one is when I move an old board or stump and disturb its hiding place underneath. Of course, when you disturb a snake, it may try to intimidate you by curling up its upper lip on one or both sides. It is just a bluffing maneuver. Young red-bellied snakes are born alive. Those of the ringneck snake are hatched from eggs. If you try to pick up a garter snake, it may bite and pinch you, but their habit of releasing a foul smelling liquid from their tail end will probably make you drop the snake quickly. It doesn’t hurt, but it is very unpleasant and works for the snake in its struggle to get away from you.
Enjoy whatever you find in the out-of-doors in a Maine summer.
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.