Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Season's Bounty of Wild Foods

American Mountain Ash laden with berries
To a Gray Catbird, Mountain Ash berries taste just fine
The amount of food available to wildlife can vary greatly year to year. Last year at the nature preserve and generally throughout our region, the nut/seed/fruit production of wild plants was quite poor and consequently much of our wildlife had difficulty overwintering – many species didn't even try and instead opted to spend the winter elsewhere.  In fact last winter it was a bit of a challenge to find foraging flocks of chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers in our woods – there was just too little food for them to find.
Wild Grapes provide food for woodpeckers, thrushes and even foxes
This year's crop of beech nuts is not huge but it's noticeably larger than last year's
What a difference a year makes. This fall the woods and pastures are pretty much teeming with wild foods. Most obvious are the apples, butternuts, grapes and maple seeds, but there are many other edible resources just waiting to be eaten or stored. Some of them will not last into the winter – they are just too popular. For instance, dogwood berries go particularly fast, while berries of the viburnums tend to be less preferred. The rate at which the berries disappear has much to do with their fat content; those that contain a relatively high amount of fat are unlikely to last, while those with less fat may remain on the plant long into the winter.
Before migrating, the Brown Thrasher fills up on wild berries
Berries from Silky Dogwood never last long
The Nannyberry's fruit tends to remain on the bush for a long while
Cranberry Viburnum berries also tend to last  well into the winter
I noticed that for the first time in a few years our Virginia Creeper vines have produced a crop of berries. Those berries also seemed to be going fast. The other day I noticed a few migrant songbirds stopping to have their fill of the small grape-like fruits. One parent Red-eyed Vireo had its adult-sized offspring in tow. The younger bird was fully capable of foraging for himself, but he knew that his raspy begging call was still capable of getting a parent to serve up another berry or perhaps an inch worm.
Rose hips from Multi-flora Rose are often a food of last resort for birds
Choke Cherries are popular - though not as popular as wild Black Cherries
Invasive silverberry bushes are newly arrived in our area - we shall see if their fruit is popular
The wild food supply is as important to migrating birds as it is to those that overwinter. Migrants need to pack on the calories in a big hurry in order to fuel their long journeys south. Luckily for them, as we make the transition from summer to autumn there are still lots of active insects, so they can take advantage of that food resource as well.
A crumpled Yellow Birch catkin reveals many small edible seeds
Seeds from Box Elder and other species of maple tree provide excellent food 
Ash seeds are popular with Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and other finches
Every late summer we do an assessment of the nature preserve’s food supplies in order to predict what species of birds are other animals may be able to spend the winter. This year we are apt to play host to a large number of robins and waxwings. They can sustain themselves primarily on wild grapes and the berries of American Mountain Ash, viburnum and Buckthorn. Seeds of maple, ash and birch will be utilized by foraging chickadee/woodpecker flocks. Woodpeckers, Blue Jays and Turkeys will also reap great benefits from the season’s ample crop of beechnuts and hickory nuts. The Jay may eat some beech nuts on site, but many will be stored in dozens of individual cache sites around the forest.
Bitternut Hickory nuts are very plentiful this year
A hazelnut partially removed from its leafy sheath
American Chestnuts are beginning to drop out of their large spiny sheaths
The Burr Oak acorn has a very large cap which covers nearly the entire nut
This has been the finest year for wild apple production in some time
Hawthorn apples or "thorn apples" are about the size of crab-apples 
A consequence of a decent wild food production year will not just mean an increase in fruit and seed eating wildlife populations. A spike in Chipmunk and other small rodent numbers will be welcomed news to scores of predator species including hawks, owls, fishers and foxes.
Don't mind the crumbs, a Red Squirrel likes to eat his butternuts on this bench
The White Spruce trees in our reforestation fields are covered with pinecones
Finches and the Red-breasted Nuthatches will take advantage of the pine seeds

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