Trees during these early days of December all seem to have a somber look. Stems and trunks are nearly all dark or gray. Only the light covering of white birch breaks this scene. Branches and twigs are just as bare. Seeds and fruits that were found earlier in the season are now long gone. But exceptions are there for those taking a closer look. A few trees still hold leaves even though they are brown and dry. Most notably of these are some northern red oaks and ironwoods. Theirs will drop in late winter after the arid times are passed; apparently these dead brown leaves will help hold moisture on these living trees.
Some other trees still have fruits and berries. Maybe the most obvious of these now are the mountain-ash trees so common in Northland yards. The red-orange clusters are borne on umbels as are those of highbush cranberry, also still on trees. The shrubs of rose and sumac hang on to their products too. But maybe the most abundant now are the small dried, and often frozen, fruits of crab apple and hawthorns. These small trees are related to apples and anyone taking a close look or a taste will agree with this comparison.
Crab apple trees at this time, or any time in fall, can be great places to see Northland birds. I have been observing a few of these trees all autumn. Back in September, when the fruits were ripe and juicy, they were seized by robins. Blue jays also gathered some in October and one morning I noticed two ruffed grouse at breakfast. With the cold and dry days of November, the half-inch fruits dried and froze. Many kinds that found them a suitable meal earlier were no longer interested. But then came the pine grosbeaks from the north. These crab apples served their tastes just fine. They settled down for some snacking that has lasted for a couple of weeks.
Pine grosbeak males are about 9 inches long, brick-red in color with a white wing bar. Females are more of a brown-gray, but the same size. Both are quite tame and I have often approached to be only a few feet away without the birds flying. They summer in the boreal forests of Canada and perhaps such remote sites keep them from seeing many people.
Crab apple fruits hang from 2-inch stems out on the end of twigs. The grosbeaks need to bend and stretch to get their food. It is not unusual to see them reaching in nearly an upside-down pose to get their prize. Not quite so acrobatic, flocks of Bohemian waxwings have come by for meals too. These crested birds with high-pitched calls usually are later in the winter.
They gave us beautiful pink-white flowers in May.
We forgot them. But crab apples invite our viewing again now as they serve as cold-weather hosts of several wintering birds.
Larry Weber is author of "The Backyard Almanac." He lives in Carlton County and teaches natural science at Duluth's Marshall School.