The color lavender now sweeps along the sides of the roads in local fields with some of the fall asters bursting into bloom. The purple color mostly comes from the New York asters. White asters also are still abundant, and the big field and pasture thistles are in full bloom. I found a big bull thistle on the cobbles the other day with a monarch butterfly sitting on it. That was a nice sight. This flower is a very handsome one. Look, but don’t touch, for its thistles are prickly. Even the name “thistle” means something sharp. Scotland claims the thistle as its flower, but hundreds of species of thistle are found scattered all over the northern hemisphere, and there are approximately 60 species native to North America. The bull thistle that you may see growing well above the tide line is a European that has been naturalized in our area. Although these are hardy plants with abundant prickles to protect them, they do have one enemy in the form of the patient donkey that has learned to eat the prickly foliage.
The beautiful, purple “shaving brush” heads are visited by hummingbirds and butterflies. When these flower heads have begun to mature, goldfinches come and take the silky filaments to use in their nest building. They are late nesters. Thistle seeds are a favorite food for goldfinches.
Monarch butterflies not only feed on the thistle, but they also lay eggs on the leaves. The hatching caterpillars use the leaves for both food and shelter and may even pupate and finally emerge as adult butterflies on the thistle plant.
Asters are a great source of pollen and nectar, just like the goldenrods. The lavender aster you see now has a stout red-purple stalk and one-half-inch-long, pale lavender ray flowers. It is easy to recognize. Enjoy them all.
A naturalist friend of mine had to intervene on behalf of some loon on Somes Pond one day, for a kayak was much too close to the birds, and the people had no idea what they were doing. The mother loon was with her large youngster, and the people thought if it didn’t like them so close, the birds would fly away. The only trouble was the young one was yet unable to fly. The mother loon was making warning sounds, but the people paid no attention. Fortunately, my friend got there in time to enlighten them, and they backed away much to the relief of the adult loon with her chick. It is always better not to try to get too close to any wildlife. With the cameras available today, you don’t need to get close. Always respect the privacy of any wildlife.
If a bird or mammal seems agitated, back off. Give it space and observe from a safe distance that does not disturb the creature or harm it in some way.
I had to slow down for a skunk scurrying across the road this weekend in the dark. I like skunks very much and have had them to care for and raise a few times in my life. They have a reputation for being smelly, but in actuality, they themselves never smell badly. Those who annoy them smell badly! Releasing the foul odor is their only means of defense.
I have put my nose right into the fur of a skunk I was holding, and the smell is like that of old dried roses. I also have had the experience of having two baby skunks spray in my lap! Their mother had been killed on the road, and we picked them up to care for them. They were riding on my lap when my husband, who was driving, hit a bump in the road, and the babies did what baby skunks are born to do: They sprayed in my lap. The smell was powerful even at their tender age, and it took a long time to rid myself of all the odor. I finally had to bury the clothes I had been wearing. The baby skunks survived the whole experience and were released later as adults.
A friend of mine had a great experience this week on a local pond. He actually was able to watch a young loon practice flying and landing. The first few attempts were pretty clumsy, but after many practice flights, the bird did it well. I once watched a young flying squirrel practice gliding in the woods near Long Pond. The little mammal would climb up a small tree and launch itself into its glide and go to the ground. It did it over and over again and definitely was practicing.
Ducks seem to hatch with the knowledge they need for swimming and their life on the water. They just step right in and swim and float with ease. A parent mostly just guides them to the best eating places and warns them of dangers. A game official once told us that wood ducks have a 50-50 chance without any adult with them. Most mammals need lots of parental help and guidance to survive. With birds, there are various ways of growing up. Some step out of the egg and are completely helpless. Others step out and are ready to walk and run with ease and to hunt for their own food.
Hummingbirds are definitely still with us, for there are many flowers still in bloom. These tiny tropical birds will begin their exit before it is too cold and all the flowers are gone. A hummingbird could never survive a Maine winter. Even in the tropics where they winter, they go into a very slowed-down state of life every night in order to make it through the night without eating.
Send any observations or questions to [email protected] or call 244-3742.