Maine nature watching flourishes in July, thanks to great weather with an average high of 77 degrees – perfection.
As we poke around the outdoors, many sights intrigue us, some puzzling, but a reference work like “The National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England” helps sort out mysteries.
For spatially challenged folks, this Audubon text looks too large for the chest pocket of an outdoors sport shirt – allegedly a daypack item – but the book does work in a chest pocket. I do it all the time.
We might be bicycling, hiking, birding, fly fishing or whatever and carry nothing but eyes, memory, binoculars or magnifying glass for plants or insects. And often enough – too often for bikers or hikers – an observation catches our attention and we stop to inspect it.
The break in our biking or hiking routine interferes with the cardiovascular workout, and our little diversion from exercising often takes way too long. We’ve all been there.
Such a long period of doing nothing but scrutinizing a curiosity may not bother lots of folks, but when I’m bicycling, it soon makes me antsy. I try to pedal in energetic spurts of 30 minutes with two or three minutes of casual pedaling between. Certain distraction like the hawk can interfere with my regimen big time, though.
While bicycling in early July, I was pedaling north on Route 27 in Belgrade, when a low-flying hawk with prey in its talons caught my eye.
I piled on the brakes beside a hedge of black locust, but it had stopped on the far side out of sight, probably to eat its prize. While I waited for it to fly into view, an older man pedaled up and said, “Do you need help?”
(I love this about bicyclists. They offer assistance.)
I told him I was birding and apologized for interfering with his bicycling, but he waved me off with a smile and continued talking.
Twenty years ago, a memorable incident happened while I was fly-fishing, and it still embarrasses me. On the Sheepscot River, Richard Procopio, a fly-fishing photographer and genuinely good guy, ran into me.
Procopio was standing with his back to the river, when he started telling me an anecdote that captured my attention. It really did. But a cedar waxwing on a limb hanging over the water behind him caught my eye. The bird was flying back and forth from one shore to the other, and on each trip it caught a mayfly in the air.
My eyes kept darting behind Procopio to watch, because I had never seen this species eat insects. In states with cherry orchards, folks call this waxwing the cherry bird because of its fondness for this drupe, but on the Sheepscot that evening, it foraged on abundant imagoes. I kept glancing behind Procopio while he talked.
Suddenly, it dawned on me that I was doing it again – behavior that must annoy most people talking to me. I have a curious mind that often does two or three things at once, so as I listen – and listen I do – my eyes may dart here and there while my ears tune into more than one thing. That is really rude, though, and my distraction often interests no one.
ON TO ANOTHER TOPIC. These days, I often spot common St. Johnswort on road edges, and each blossom has five yellow petals with black dots on the edges and numerous stamens in clusters of three.
Settlers in the 1600s brought common St. Johnswort from the Old World. In an agrarian society, farmers hated this plant, though, because livestock grazing on it would get sunburned noses. (A chemical in the plant causes this malady.)
A feature of common St. Johnswort, though, puzzles me. The 1- to 2-inch long leaves should have translucent dots that look like spots of grease.
Anyway, while biking or hiking, I often notice this plant and look for translucent dots on the leaves but half the time see none. I wonder if the plant is not common St. Johnswort but rather a related species, a question I intend to solve with research and maybe a competent botanist. (Yes, I have asked a serious, amateur botanist about this plant and got an unsatisfactory answer.)
That’s the beauty of a Maine summer in the outdoors. It’s always difficult to engage in a single endeavor without a sighting making our minds wander in several directions at once, and it’s all happening now in a forest, field, trail or road edge near all of us. Let’s get out.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at