Berry Bonanza

Red Elder Berries
(the heavily laden bushes are now berry-less!)

There is an all-you-can-eat berry feast going on outside our house, and no doubt all over the northwest. The cloudy cool summer has not affected the berry harvest, and harvesting is exactly what is happening in treetops and bushes all around our house.  The treat for us is the variety of feasters who show up.

Early in the summer I love looking out and seeing a rotund red-breasted American Robin with a big juicy yellow Salmon Berry in its beak.  But it is when the Red Elderberries begin to ripen that the action really begins. Plump Band-tailed Pigeons are heard before they are seen, their flappy wing sounds and owl-like cooing tell us they have arrived.  Years of over-hunting, almost to extinction, have left these beautiful gray birds shy, but they are persistent and if scared off by our presence, they return, weighting down branches as they pluck the small red berries.

Elderberries also attract the most colorful of our northwest birds, the Western Tanager.  Flashy yellow-black bodies with orangey-red heads move fast through the bushes, eating here and there, not sticking around and chowing down like the Band-tails.

Cascara Berries
Just beginning to ripen, the feast has just begun!

The party really gets going with the ripening of Cascara berries. These tiny purple-black berries ripen a few at a time, each berry cluster having reddish and green berries along with ripened ones.  I’ve seen Evening Grosbeaks eat green berries, they are usually the first to head for the treetops of the largest Cascaras. But as more berries ripen, the diversity of diners increases. Finally, considered one of the most beautiful of American passerines, the Cedar Waxwings arrive.  Their tanish gray bodies, soft yellow breasts, characteristic yellow-tipped tail and scarlet tipped wing feathers are just part of their unique characteristics.  It is a mystery to me why they are so beautiful, they have the same masked look as a Raccoon, and the feather head-dress of a Stellar Jay, both these characteristics should give them a more roguish look, like a masked robber with a slicked-back do.  But somehow they pull it off as stunning beauty.

I’ve done a bit of reading about Cedar Waxwings, having had a remarkable ‘nature experience’ years ago involving their eating habits.  While walking on a nearby logging road I came upon a small (by conifer tree standards) cedar tree, 20 to 25 feet tall.  It was completely covered with Cedar Waxwings, there was barely room for them all, resulting in some jostling for position.  I stood mesmerized.  Though I could barely see the tree branches through the mass of bird bodies, I did notice it had bumper crop of small green cones, the ‘berries’ of the cedar tree.  Returning the next day, thinking there might be some birds still around, I saw nary a bird and a tree completely void of cones (binoculars helped confirm this).

Thus the cedar part of their name.  These are the only birds who can exist almost solely on berries.  This is to their advantage in some unusual ways, such as, a Cowbird egg laid in a Waxwing nest is not likely to survive once hatched because, unlike the Waxwing chicks, it cannot thrive on the predominately berry diet. Waxwings do feed their young some bugs, but not enough for a Cowbird to survive.  An endearing behavior of Waxwings is the passing of flower petals and small twigs back and forth during courtship, as well as ‘snuggling’.  What’s not to love?  A handsome, roguish looking bird who brings gifts when courting, loves berries, and likes to party (they are often seen in large flocks, though I have never again seen a flock as large as I did that magical day on the logging road.)

This year we seem to have a family of three Cedar Waxwings flitting from tree to tree, they have been here for days, though I think there might be more.  They are birds on the move in the treetops, elusive to my photography equipment and skills. Looking at a photograph of one, I attempted this drawing of a Cedar Waxwing, but neither photographs nor drawings seem to portray accurately their loveliness. (Even Sibley’s Waxwings look fat and unfriendly, not the sleek beauties I see in the treetops).

Waxwings are not the only feasters in the Cascaras.  I watched a territorial Robin try, unsuccessfully, to bully the Waxwings out of one tree.  The Pigeons, having finished off all the Elderberries, will now chow down on Cascara.  There are other birds, not yet identified, flitting in and out.  Fortunately a few Cascara trees just outside our front window have lower branches so we will be watching and identifying these avian berry connoisseurs the remainder of the summer, the staggered ripening of Cascara berries makes them an available food source for the entire month of August.

It is also a bumper crop year for Red Huckleberries, and I was wondering, as I picked berries from the heavily laden bushes to give my chickens, who think they are the crème de la crème of treats, why I don’t see wild birds eating these little tart berries.  Then yesterday I saw out the window a Stellar Jay doing contortions while plucking the red juicy berries.   I was delighted to see a Jay back amongst our feathered friends, (they tend to disappear and be elusive during breeding season) and happy to know they enjoy huckleberries!

Red Huckleberries

To see a photo and read more about Cedar Waxwings: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You can look up the other birds I mention on the same web site and hear the calls of each one, very helpful when trying to identify birds high in the treetops!

(Footnote:  Our raspberries are also abundant this year. Interestingly, wild birds don’t seem to care for the sweet domestic berries, given the surrounding wild harvest. However, squirrels are ravaging the canes, knocking berries on the ground, and eating them right in front of us! Grrrrrr!)