Northland Nature: Many critters take advantage of the berry crop of late summer
August continues the berry crop that began earlier in the summer. Strawberries have come and gone but most of the other berries of the roadsides and woods are still with us. The observant traveler who proceeds down a side road, bike path or hikin...
August continues the berry crop that began earlier in the summer. Strawberries have come and gone but most of the other berries of the roadsides and woods are still with us. The observant traveler who proceeds down a side road, bike path or hiking trail at this time will see dozens of ripe berries. They are varied in size, color and abundance.
In the woods, we find the red and white baneberries along with the red bunchberries. Edges garnished with sunlight give us many more. In these lightened spots, we find blueberries, juneberries and red elderberries, all past peak. Ripe and flourishing nearby are more reds: honeysuckles and pin cherries, both in small trees while the extremely common raspberries decorate the bushes below. Not nearly as frequent as the raspberries is their cousin; Thimbleberries grow here, too. Plants are much larger and hold huge maple-like leaves with a big soft berry that is quick to smash in the pickers' hands. Soon these berry delights will be joined by others of late summer: chokecherry, highbush cranberry and blackberry.
Though most of us immediately think of berries as edible, many get avoided or ignored by us. Such is not the case for other critters who also live in the northland. Berries are devoured by a variety of animals, from insects to mammals large and small, to birds. Any picker has seen, and felt, the local bugs on the berries and the tales of bears and rodents are well known. With lots of insects still available for bird food, they could probably do well without berries, but many find them irresistible now. One of the most likely seen of the feathered berry birds is the cedar waxwing. And now may be the best time to see these seven-inch crested birds.
Cedar waxwings are gray-brown with a yellow band on the tip of the tail and red spots on the wings. These red spots, which reminded early naturalists of the sealing wax used on envelopes, give the bird the waxwing name. The cedar part is due to its eating of berries of the junipers (a type of cedar).
Since returning in the spring, the waxwings have lived nearby. In trees and shrubs, often in our yards, they raised their young. Now, as a family, they gather ripe berries and gorge themselves. They have been observed to swallow so many berries that they are hardly able to fly afterwards.
Small flocks descend on choice berry trees and here they stay, frequently giving their high-pitched "zeee" sound. When tiring of the small fruits or just desiring other food, they show their ability to catch insects in mid air. They seem to mimic the skills of flycatchers.
As long as the berries and bugs last, cedar waxwings will remain with us, giving us plenty to watch as we move through these days of late summer. When these food sources are gone, the fall flocks move on again for winter.
Larry Weber is author of the "Backyard Almanac" and "Butterflies of the Northwoods." He lives in Carlton County and teaches natural science at Duluth's Marshall School.