A boom for dogberry birds

Bruce
Bruce Mactavish
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The British call it the rowan tree and up-along it’s known as the mountain ash, but to a Newfoundlander it is, for some reason, a dogberry.

To overwintering birds, it is simply manna from heaven, and this winter it is probably a life-saver for many of our birds.

The winter of 2013-2014 in the St. John’s area has been one of the greatest dogberry years ever. In the fall, the trees were so enamelled with shiny orange that the branches were bowed groundwards with fruit. Amazingly, in mid-February, there were still untouched berries in pockets here and there around town.

Birds have eaten the rest.

Which birds? There are a lot of dogberry birds in St. John’s in winter.

Robins that eat worms all summer can survive a Newfoundland winter with access to dogberries. As well, it is no coincidence that cedar waxwings are around in larger numbers than usual this winter, surviving on dogberries. The default winter waxwing species in Newfoundland is the Bohemian waxwing, a wanderer from the west that somehow arrives in Newfoundland in January whenever there is a good dogberry crop. How do they know? Do local birds tweet them?

Species of finches that eat seeds in summer can also dine on dogberries in winter. Pine grosbeaks are among the few finch species around this winter, and they join the dogberry-dining flocks along with their smaller relative the purple finch. Even flickers, who would never stoop to eating berries in summer, will enjoy the odd dogberry in a winter cold spell.

But this winter, the main bird eating all those berries is the lowly starling. This is where the situation gets tense for over-wintering robins and waxwings.

The dogberry crop is immense, but the starling flocks are also large. If the starlings deplete the dogberries before the snow melts, the robins and waxwings may starve. The good news is that in 2014, there may just be enough berries to go around.

One circumstance helping the robins is the relative scarcity of the Bohemian waxwings.

Smallish flocks have appeared, but not the massive flocks of up to 5,000 birds that have appeared in past dogberry years. A flock of thousands of waxwings eating dozens of berries each per day can pretty rapidly deplete the city of berries.

To distinguish the overwintering cedar waxwings from the visiting Bohemian waxwings, check out the so-called “vent” area underneath: if it is rusty red, they are Bohemians; if it is yellowish, they are cedars.

As well, the wings have much more colour on the Bohemians than just the waxy red tips that give the “waxwing” name to the cedar waxwings. Both species are absolutely beautiful.

Experienced birders are careful to search through flocks of dogberry birds for rarities. Newfoundland’s only mountain bluebirds were found among overwintering robins eating dogberries.

European thrushes that have arrived on easterly winds in the fall gravitate to the over-wintering robin flocks.

Redwing thrushes and fieldfares are found more often in Newfoundland than anywhere else in North America, and they attract bird listers from across the continent.

This February, in Trepassey, Cliff Doran continues to feed a hardy hermit thrush, which is surviving on dogberries from his freezer.

Freezing dogberries in the fall has become a habit among Newfoundland bird lovers.

If the wild berries do run out, those freezer berries can bridge the food gap between late February and late March — life or death time for many over-winterers.

Thaw the berries over night so the birds aren’t dining on little frozen bullets. If you don’t have dogberries, blueberries and grapes are a good alternative, as can be seen in the attached photo.

One species that I don’t recommend dogberries for is us. Dogberries taste funky. While I’m at it, the practice of making wine from dogberries is barbaric and should be banned. Blech. Dogberries are for the birds.

Sightings

On Feb. 19, the elusive yellow-legged gull made another surprise appearance at Quidi Vidi Lake.

This extremely rare gull has tormented both visiting and local birders all winter, disappearing for weeks at a time and then, just when we think it has gone back to Europe, it shows up briefly enough to tease us.

Does it know how much it could contribute to birding tourism dollars if it only became a regular?

As of my deadline, it has been seen on five consecutive days at the mouth of the Virginia River, but don’t start calling it a regular yet.

There is a reason they’re called rarities.

The story of the various mergansers at Quidi Vidi Lake this winter continues to evolve. The hooded and red-breasted mergansers seem to have left us, but the common merganser numbers continue to grow. There are currently three males and two females of this normally shy species in the open water at the mouth of the Virginia River.

Enjoy the close views before the lake opens up.

While Bruce Mactavish is away, Ken Knowles is watching the Winging It email,

wingingitone@yahoo.ca.

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Robins, Virginia River North America Trepassey Europe

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  • Susan Ingersoll
    April 17, 2014 - 11:34

    Saw a dogberry tree full of smallish birds down by Quidi Vidi lake this morning, mottled dark grey on the back, lighter buff-grey underneath. And crested! Any idea what they were? They were munching away on the dogberries.