Tuesday, December 24, 2013

White-throated Sparrow with Snowflakes...

Watercolor painting by Kelly Riccetti of a White-crowned Sparrow at night among snowflakes.
I think our little White-throated Sparrow has just settled himself for a long winter's nap.
(...or maybe he's watching for Santa!)

Wishing you the happiest of holidays
filled with love and cheer. 

Merry Christmas...and a Happy New Year! 

Winter Birds
White-throated Sparrows are one of our first winter birds to arrive in our back yard each autumn. Rick and I watch for them, along with White-crowned Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos as soon as the leaves start to turn colors and a chill hangs in the air. These sweet birds leave their nesting grounds up north and head south to live with us during the winter. They are special guests, and their musical calls and beautiful plumage brighten dull gray winter days. It's always exciting to spy the first to arrive for the season. This year, Dark-eyed Juncos won the contest, showing up on October 21. White-throated Sparrows were right on their heals, making their appearance on October 23. White-crowned Sparrows sometimes skip our yard altogether, but this year, they dropped in on November 14. We're still waiting for our musical little American Tree Sparrows to show. They usually blow in with a winter storm in January. With all the snow we've had in December, however, we were hoping they would show up sooner. We will keep watching. Maybe they will hitch a ride with Santa, and we will see them at the feeders Christmas morn...

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Gray Dogwood is for the birds, too...

Just like the Staghorn Sumac berries (drupes) from the previous post, Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) berries are very important to the birds too! The nutritional content between the fruit of the two species is different, however, and the birds eat the fruit for different reasons. Staghorn Sumac drupes are low in fat and high in ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and tannins, which creates fruit that is hard and lasts long into the winter season. The drupes, which are ignored until all the "tasty" berries have been stripped from the trees, help birds survive the harsh, cold winter and early spring. Gray Dogwood berries are the opposite...the creamy white drupes of the dogwood are high in fat, which makes them soft and highly palatable to the birds. Gray Dogwood drupes are meant to be eaten through the fall and early winter to help fuel migrating songbirds (especially catbirds and thrushes) on their energy-expending flights south...

Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) berries
Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) berries (drupes) are high in fat. Migrating birds need these high-fat calorie-dense drupes to build up their fat stores so they have enough energy to make it to their wintering grounds.

This stand of Gray Dogwood was located along the trail near the visitor's center at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge right next to the Staghorn Sumac from the previous post. Gray Dogwood has white berries, bright red pedicels (the stalks the fruit grows on), and red stems on newer growth but gray bark on the older branches. The gray bark is how the plant gets its name...

Gray Dogwood is distinguished by the gray bark that appears on older branches. The bright red shows on newer stems and the fruit pedicels.
Gray Dogwood and Staghorn Sumac grow side by side along the trail near the visitor's center at Ottawa NWR near Toledo. In addition to the fruit benefiting the birds, thickets of Gray Dogwood provide cover and habitat for birds.

Gray Dogwood berries are creamy white on red fruit stalks.
The white berries of the Gray Dogwood start to ripen in late August and early September. By the beginning of November the soft drupes are already showing wear. 

Pioneer woody plants help tip a prairie or abandoned field toward forest succession.
White berries on bright red pedicels. You can see the birds have been busy eating the fruit while the eating is good! Gray Dogwood drupes are a fall fuel treat for migrating songbirds and are not meant to last through the winter.

...only one berry remains on this Gray Dogwood pedicel. Although the drupes will be gone soon, the bright red color of the fruit stalks lasts through the winter.

Gray Dogwoods as pioneer woody shrubs...
Gray Dogwoods are one of the first shrubs to move into a prairie if it is left un-mowed or unburned, making it a "pioneer woody plant" that moves a prairie or abandoned field toward succession. Click here for an article by the Ohio Prairie Association detailing how Gray Dogwoods overtake and shade out prairies and how to manage prairies to prevent it. A good example of a meadow being overtaken by Gray Dogwoods is the Voice of America (VOA) Metro Park's high meadow. It was left untended for years, and Gray Dogwood pioneers had definitely set up camp. This spring the park service started prairie restoration in several places. I need to head back and see how it's progressing.

Flowering Dogwoods are for the birds, also...
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) trees also have fruit high in fat, and migrating songbirds love the tree's red berries. For a post on a Flowering Dogwood tree I photographed last autumn in Greenbo Lake State Park in KY (click here). 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Staghorn Sumac is for the birds...

In early November when we headed up to Toledo for a little birding, we spent one morning at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, my favorite trails were closed, but we still were able to see three American Bald Eagles from a distance and numerous other birds and ducks. We walked the small trail and boardwalk near the visitor's center and saw lots of berry-producing plants. I especially liked the color showing on the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)...

The branches of Staghorn Sumac are furry like a stag's antlers when in velvet.
It's easy to see how Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) gets its name. Its furry and velvety stems and branches resemble a stag's antlers in the "velvet" stage of development. 
A little about antlers and velvet...
Male deer grow new antlers every year. They shed them in late winter, and new antler growth begins in late March or early April. Antlers are bone, not horn, and the growing bone is fed by blood vessels in the sensitive skin that covers the bone, which looks like and is called "velvet." Antlers grow quickly, and by late summer the levels of the reproductive hormone testosterone increase, signaling the bone to start to harden. Up until then, the antlers were soft, spongy, and even delicate. Eventually, a ring at the base of the antler (the burr) cuts off the blood supply to the velvet, which dries up and falls off. The hard antlers remain on the stag through the height of the breeding season. As testosterone levels start to fall after the rut, the antlers eventually fall off. For a more detailed explanation of the growth of a deer's antlers, click here for an article by the University of Missouri that also contains photos of deer antlers in velvet. Click here for a similar article that explains how antlers grow by The Izaak Walton league of America. For a beautiful photo of a white-tailed deer in velvet, click hereFor a photo of a white-tailed deer losing his velvet, click here.

Incredible color of autumn is easily found on a Staghorn Sumac tree.
You can't beat the color of Staghorn Sumac in the autumn. 
A little about Staghorn Sumac, winter, and the birds...
Staghorn Sumac is native to the United States and is part of the cashew family. I love the bright red and orange color of the leaves in autumn, and a few years ago I added a few plants to my yard. They have multiplied and have already started a small colony, but even though I love the fall color, I love the fruit Staghorn Sumacs produce for the birds even more. Staghorn Sumac fruit helps birds get through the dead of winter. When all the other softer and more desirable berries of late summer and fall have been consumed, and the bushes and trees are all stripped bare, Staghorn Sumac fruit is still viable. The fuzzy fruit becomes an important source of food in the late winter and early spring for overwintering birds such as wild turkeys, Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Mockingbirds, woodpeckers, chickadees, Brown Thrashers, Cedar Waxwings, Bobwhite Quail, grouses, and Hermit Thrushes. Staghorn Sumac "berries" are technically called "drupes" (a drupe is a fleshy fruit that surrounds a single seed in a shell; e.g., a cherry or a plum), and the conical cluster of drupes is called a "bob."

Vibrant red leaflets stand out against the dull background.
Staghorn Sumac leaves are compound and are made up of nine to 31 leaflets. The leaflets are between two and five inches long. They have toothed edges and hang opposite each another.

Staghorn Sumac is not Poison Sumac
I've heard people mention they don't like Staghorn Sumac, because they thought it was Poison Sumac. It's not. Staghorn Sumac has red berries, furry stems, and jagged (toothed) leaves. It's also common and grows at forest edges, clearings, and hillsides. Poison Sumac has white berries, smooth stems, and smooth leaves. It's not as common and grows in wetlands. Poison Sumac is not your friend. I read on the TrekOhio blog that it is the most toxic plant in the United States! For photos and more discussion of urushiol (the resin in the plant that causes the allergic reactions in poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac), click here. In Ohio, Poison Sumac is mostly found in the northeast and in boggy areas in the south. Urushiol doesn't bother the birds, and just like Staghorn Sumac fruit, birds like Poison Sumac berries.

Click here for more information on Staghorn Sumac from The Ohio State University's Ohio Perennial and Biennial Weed Guide.