Winter Fruit ID: Crab Apple

Photo of 'Adams' Crab Apples

As I mentioned Monday, planted Crab Apple (Malus spp.) trees can retain fruit throughout the white season -- fruit that many types of birds will partake in, when there are few other fruit options on the landscape. One common cultivar and the one shown here is 'Adams' Crab Apple (Malus 'Adams'). I've heard many people call these cherry trees, and with good reason -- if I topped your ice cream sundae with one of these fruits I bet you'd be fooled until you took a bite. Instead of a single hard pit (which Cherries contain), Crab Apples have multiple seeds arranged just like a full-sized apple (slice a fresh one crosswise and you'll see a star-shaped core; if you wait until February, you'll be left with a mushy mess). The only cherries I see during a New England winter are in my freezer (like Black Cherry and Choke Cherry -- both of which I've been using to flavor jello) or imports for sale in a supermarket.

All Crab Apples are edible, and if gathered before they turn to mush some types can be used to make jellies and drinks. By late winter, they are too funky to be appetizing. In my experience, 'Adams' Crab Apples are among those best suited for Wild Turkeys, American Robins, and Cedar Waxwings.

White Season Birds: Bohemian Waxwing

Photo of Bohemian Waxwings

Wild fruit offerings are fairly scarce by February, but by scanning shopping plaza parking lots, college campuses, sidewalk plantings, and country roads, one can often find Crab Apple (Malus spp.) trees still covered with fruit. In locating a larder, you may also locate fruit-eating birds, like European Starlings, American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, or even Bohemian Waxwings. Whereas the first three species are expected in winter (here in southern Maine), Bohemians are "irruptive winter migrants" -- only in certain years do they venture into northern New England (rarely farther south) in search of sustenance.

Cedar Waxwings have yellowish bellies with white under-tails; Bohemians have gray bellies with reddish under-tails. Bohemians are also larger and trill at a lower pitch than Cedar Waxwings. Here's an audio sample.

The first Bohemian I saw this year was with a flock of Cedars in Wells, ME. Can you pick out the bird in this fuzzy photo?

Photo of Bohemian Waxwing with Cedar Waxwings

My second sighting, in Ogunquit, was a single Bohemian with a flock of American Robins and European Starlings. A few days later in Biddeford, I noticed a bunch of waxwings in a roadside tree -- they all turned out to be Bohemians. Conditions were less than ideal for photographs, but today's first and last shots give a sense of their striking beauty.

Photo of Bohemian Waxwings

Quiz #141: Bird

Identify these fruit eaters. (Photographed in Biddeford, ME on February 8, 2015.)

Photo of Quiz #141: Bird

Click here for the answer.

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Coastal Crabs: Atlantic Rock Crab

Photo of Atlantic Rock Crab remains

My experience with coastal crabs is limited -- I most frequently find their dead bodies or molted shells on beaches, or witness them coming to an end in the mouth of a crustacean-eating bird, like a Common Loon, Common Eider, or Herring Gull. The widespread Atlantic Rock Crab (Cancer irroratus) pictured here is an edible species who ranges from shallow tide pools to deep ocean waters.  Atlantic Rock Crabs have more sharply pointed spines and generally smaller claws than similar Jonah Crabs (C. borealis). The Species ID card offered by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute explains how to tell these two crab species apart.

Photo of Atlantic Rock Crab shell

Dabbling Ducks: American Black Duck

Photo of American Black Ducks

American Black Ducks can be found in both fresh and salt-water wetlands, often in the company of Mallards. Both species are primarily dabblers, feeding at or just below the surface, but on rare occasions, I've watched members of both species dive out of sight, surfacing moments later, presumably with a mouthful of food.

American Black Ducks have dark brown bodies with lighter brown heads. A male's bill is yellow, female's olive-green; both have black nails at the tip. The blueish wing patch in their secondaries -- called a speculum -- is bordered with black, unlike the white-bordered speculums of Mallards (the photo below highlights an American Black Duck in a crowd of Mallards). Hybrids of the two species (an example is pictured in Dabbling Ducks: Mallard) are fairly common, and these birds often show a mixture of plumage characteristics.

Photo of American Black Duck with Mallards

Quiz #140: Bird

Identify the duck who is not a Mallard in the following video. (Filmed in Ogunquit, ME on January 11, 2015.) If you don't know the mystery bird, I encourage you to consult a field guide to birds.

Snapshot of Quiz #140: Bird

Click here for the answer.

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White Season Birds: Common Loon

Photo of Common Loon

Before ice locks up inland lakes and ponds, Common Loons head to the open ocean where they attempt to ride out the white season. Though they no longer sport their familiar black-and-white breeding attire, their large size helps them to stand out among other wintering waterfowl. Two smaller, less-common loons occur along the New England coast in winter: Red-throated Loon and Pacific Loon. White-season Common Loons have heavy, gray bills, scalloped gray backs, dark crowns often appearing flattened, and a jagged collar. They largely feed on fish, though I've seen individuals feeding on crabs, too. (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)

Lastly, here's a brief Common Loon video meditation.

Winter Tree ID: Big-toothed Poplar

Photo of Big-toothed Poplar dried leaf

During the green season, the leaves of Big-toothed Poplar (Populus grandidentata) shake and sing much like the leaves of Quaking Poplar (P. tremuloides). Indeed, both species have leaves with flattened petioles, but the leaf margins of Big-toothed Poplar -- also called Big-toothed Aspen -- have fewer, larger teeth. Winter buds are hairy and often appear whitish. Trunk bark is generally light-colored and smooth on young trees, and becomes rough and ridged with age. Big-toothed Poplar grows quickly on open sites, like regenerating fields, and is often one of the first tree species to establish after logging, flooding, or fire.  (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)

Quiz #139: Tree

I photographed this twig in Wells, ME before the recent snow fall. Identify the tree from which this twig fell.

Photo of Quiz #139: Tree

Click here for the answer.

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