10/21/21 Poison Ivy is for the Birds

It’s finally fall in the Ohio River Valley, and very early yesterday morning a whole load of avian travelers dropped into in this little forest. It’s the late fall/winter gang – lots of “butter-butts” (Yellow-rumped warbler), Hermit thrushes, Golden-crowned kinglets, Flickers, White-throated sparrows and at least one Ovenbird. And what were they eating you may ask? Quite a few were feasting on the berries of many people’s least favorite plant – Poison ivy.

Yellow-rumped warbler feeding on Poison ivy berries

Yellow-rumped warblers are the most abundant of their clan in northern latitude winters, and I just learned why they are so hardy. “The Yellow-rumped Warbler is the only warbler able to digest the waxes found in bayberries and wax myrtles. Its ability to use these fruits allows it to winter farther north than other warblers, sometimes as far north as Newfoundland.”(allaboutbirds.org) So obviously Poison ivy berries are no problem for this unique warbler.

In the pic above, can you tell which species is scarfing down the berries in this aerial bounty of Poison ivy?

A closer look shows it’s a Northern flicker; Red-bellied and Pileated woodpeckers are also big berry eaters in fall and winter.

The forest stewards are careful not to cut Poison ivy vines off the trees, considering it’s such a valuable plant for migratory birds. Consequently there is a nice up-in-the-trees presence of big poison ivy tangles.

And while we’re on the subject of berries, we have to talk about Spicebush, lindera benzoin. The stewards have planted and transplanted a tremendous number of these over the past eight years, as the proper replacement for invasive Bush honeysuckle and Privet. Our progress really shows; at this season the berry loaded branches arch out at trailside throughout the bottoms. Another bird ID challenge – what species is lurking in the center of the Spicebush in the pic above?

Not surprisingly it’s a Hermit thrush, since thrushes as a group are some of the main consumers of Spicebush berries (the reddish-brown tail that flicks up and down makes this an easy ID for birders).

Another lurker that looks like a thrush but is actually a warbler…

…is revealed to be an Ovenbird. This mostly insectivorous species will sometimes linger north in winter and survive on seeds and berries.

Ovenbird in its forest floor habitat

The illustration above is a poor-quality image of a watercolor painting by my favorite bird artist from back in the day – Louis Aggasiz Fuertes.

And let us not forget the ubiquitous Pokeberry, a favorite of larger birds like Brown thrashers. The berries on most plants have already dried up or been consumed, so I was startled to see this one through the binoculars while looking at a woodpecker fifty feet up in a snag. Apparently a bird wiped its beak or pooped up here a while back, and this big healthy Pokeberry plant was the result. For some reason the berries on it are still quite fresh – but even when dried up, pokeberries are an important winter food.

FYI for my local readers, I’m leading a Beginner Birding program this Sunday 10/24 from 10 to noon. There’s still a couple open spots!

https://www.louisvillenaturecenter.org/upcoming-events/2021/10/24/beginner-birding

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