Towering plants of mullein rose above the grass near my house this week. These interesting plants are elegant in their height and wide, soft velvet leaves. Small yellow blossoms provide colorful decorations on this unique plant. Mullein is not only attractive, but it also provides winter food for wildlife. Stalks in the wintertime are favorite places for woodpeckers and goldfinches and other small birds searching for seeds. The soft fuzzy leaves also have taken the place of Charmin for outdoorsmen. Other names for mullein are velvet plant and flannel leaf. The whole mullein plant gives the appearance of a very large candelabra growing along our roadsides and in fields. I’m always happy when one plants itself in my garden. The small, yellow flowers appear on the thick, flowering stalk near the top of the plant.
Common mullein was introduced here from Europe and has now spread across the continent. It is a native of the island of Thapsos. In Greece, it is said that the leaves were used for lamp wicks.
Goldfinches gather on mullein stalks to feast on the seeds that form soon after the flower blooms, and pollen-collecting bees move from flower to flower. The feltlike covering on the plant is important for protecting the delicate, sensitive active cells from intense light, draught and cold. Hummingbirds have been found gathering the velvet hairs to line their tiny nests.
Cormorants are fun to watch all summer as they sit and congregate on docks, rocks and ledges. These dark, water birds with snakelike necks appear sometimes like feathered submarines. They are right at home in the water, and they nest on offshore islands. Visiting a colony is quite an experience, for the birds are crowded together and it is a smelly, noisy place. If you take one of the local nature cruises, you’ll get to see them. Some nests are in the trees, but most seem to be on the ground and rocks, and are made of sticks and seaweed. A nesting colony is definitely a noisy, smelly place with calling babies. Nests are placed closely together, and there are many well-worn paths into the area made by the cormorants feet paddling along to and fro.
The parent birds flying about in the colony usually land near the edge and then walk to their particular nesting spot so the nesting colony becomes a maze of these little paths.
Cormorants dive for their meals of fish from a sitting position and actually swim underwater in pursuit of a fish. Since their plumage is not waterproof, they must perch on rocks, posts or buoys later with their wings spread out to dry. You often can see them with this spreadeagle pose. Sometimes this is referred to as the “preaching from the mount” position. Locally they are often named shags. The cormorants start arriving here on our island from the south at the end of March, and until their long migrating lines and Vs leave in the fall, they are familiar birds to see in this area. An excellent place to watch large groups of them is at the little picnic area in Ellsworth at the Harbor Park and Marina.
If you’re out on any of lakes, watch for loons. Be respectful and don’t get too close to these interesting water birds. This is especially important if their chicks are with them. There are many hazards for the chicks, and when they are young, they need their strength to survive life’s hazards. Getting too close is very stressful for the birds.
Big fish and snapping turtles can catch them, and eagles certainly seek them out for food. Enjoy watching and seeing them, but don’t try to get closer for a photo. Use your telephoto lens for that. Loons are well-known for that mournful, wild sound on a Maine lake. Loons calling to each other on a lake are communicating to each other.
I have interesting ants on my driveway. They have built a narrow highway into the packed dirt and gravel that takes them from one side to the other. The car does not destroy this highway at all. Their typical ant’s nest is just on one side. I have seen much larger ditches and tunnels made by ants in the tropics and have watched ants carrying leaves along like someone with a parasol. I found it very fascinating. I will have to keep watching closely at the ants in my own space.
Water lilies are coming into bloom. I see the beginning of yellow water lilies on my small pond. The flowers are a golden globular shape and appear on the surface with the leaves. Sometimes when the water level goes down, the stalks stand up above the surface. The leaves of our local yellow pond lily are not strong enough to hold even a frog. However, some lily leaves in the tropics can hold up to nine pounds. They are impressive to see.
If you pass the pond near the Eagle Lake parking area near the bridge not far from Bar Harbor, you’ll be able to see the large white water lilies that grow here. Check them out earlier in the day, for they tend to close about noon. The little paths on the side of the road lead you to nearby spots from which you get excellent views of life on the pond. I’ve found all sort of plants easy to find and nice views of the beaver lodge and maybe even a beaver.