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Nannyberry Robins

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Robins have never left our area this winter. It's been a long time since the robins hung around all winter. I often wonder if they know something we don't about the relative severity of a winter. Then I remember that it's all about food. Although most of Ohio was in a bad drought last summer, we got a bunch of small showers that made it less severe in our area. As a result, there's still a lot of fruit in the woods. So there are a lot of robins and waxwings, flickers and hermit thrushes. About ten days ago, I was shocked to see a brown thrasher hurtle across the driveway in front of me. And yesterday, there was a jay-sized bird tossing sunflower and millet along with the jays--but entirely the wrong color.It was our first winter brown thrasher. Thrashers usually migrate to the southern US in winter, but a few hang around here and there. Seeing such wonders, I tend not to think of some freaky trend due to global warming. I think about fruit crops.What a fine sight, one I usually have to wait until March 16-28 to see. When the thrasher sings, though, spring is truly here. This one has been silent.

I see robins every time I walk, but on this sunny walk I was lucky enough to see them foraging in a viburnum. I may be mistaken, but I think this is Viburnum lentago, or nannyberry. Thanks to Tom from Ohio and Tom from Wisconsin (if I ever get a Science Chimp, I'll name him Tom) for steering me in the right direction on that ID!   It's a big bush, maybe 12 feet high, and I could tell it was a viburnum by its opposite branches. And that was about as far as I got. But with guidance from the Toms and the gorgeous web site of the Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium at the University of Wisconsin, I think we've got it nailed down.

They were leaning over, plucking the big black fruits and choking them down, giggling and whisper-singing like robins do in February.Robins tend to migrate in same-sex flocks, at different times from each other. I love early spring, when the all-male flocks come through. It must be nice for the birds to meet up again on the breeding ground after having hen and bachelor parties all winter. These were mostly females, with their paler breasts, laced with white feather tips. But there was a handsome black-headed male in among them, too. What a thrilling bird the robin is. I have never once been tempted to take robins for granted. I always look and marvel at these hearty big thrushes, and I'm thankful that they are so common. What a great bird, to be so common. That it has one of the most simply eloquent songs of all is just perfection on perfection. George Sutton said his favorite song of all was that of a robin, right after a thundershower. At the risk of being a copycat, me too, me too.

Other things seen on our sunny walk: The Slingshot Tree (Phoebe's name). Maybe Giant John could use it. I'd love to know what happened to this tree, to shape it so.
As we made our way home along Dalzell Road, we paused to rest in the fragrant needles under some white pines. Phoebe and Chet watched for squirrels and the infrequent cars that came along (hence Chet's unaccustomed confinement to a leash). In six four-mile hikes, he's only taken off after deer once, and he came right back. When we're on unfamiliar ground, Chet sticks close. The more walks we take, the farther he ranges, learning things untold about our route. It's good to have a dog you can trust to come back. But you'll never be able to trust him to come back unless you make that leap to trust him in the first place. Just in case, I carry acorn caps in my pockets. A pair of thumbs on an acorn cap makes an ear-piercing whistle that always brings Chet hustling. The leash only comes out when there are dogs, cars or cattle near.
Liam sacked out in the sweet carpet of needles, little lizardboy. Everyone who drove by stared at us. It's very unusual to see families out walking in this area. Everyone assumes there must be something wrong, for people to be on foot. So we give them bright smiles and happy waves to tell them there's no need to stop. Nothing to see here. Move along, move along.

I spent some time contemplating my Smartwool socks--the only sock worth wearing--and Keen Cortina Mid boots. After only a year and a half, I had worn the soles almost completely smooth, rendering these fine boots useless for the steep slopes along which I scramble. The uppers, made of split leather, aren't anywhere near wearing out; they're just getting broken in. Keen's not making this model any more. To my chagrin, all of Keen's new hiking boots seem to be Goretexy creations, still nice, but too sneakerlike for the harsh handling I give them. So, for about half the price of a new pair, I had them resoled at Cobbler John's in town. They ground what was left of the soles off them, and glued on new Vibram soles, with good luggy treads. Kind of like getting a crown for a worn tooth. Now I have grip again. I need grip, like I need robins, and winter walks in the infrequent sun.


Is Cobbler John still in the basement of the Dime Bank building? It feels good to give new life to favorite shoes!

Hi Julie,

Very nice post. I had to chime in on the Viburnum. We (ODNR-DNAP) currently recognizes Viburnum opulus L. var. americanum Aiton as a state endangered native species having been recorded in Ashtabula, Geauga, Stark, Summit, and Trumbull counties since 1980. I have seen the non-native species (Viburnum opulus L. var. opulus ) here in Franklin County and throughout the north half of Ohio. I unfortunately don't get to botanize much in S.E. Ohio, but the website doesn't list the non-native as occurring in S.E. Ohio. The non-native can be nasty weed in natural areas.

Anyways, the Viburnum opullus var. opulus that I have seen tends to have very bright red fruits that dry in the winter to an orangish color. I'm thinking that your very dark berries could be the native Viburnum acerifolium (Maple leaved viburnum) perhaps? Just a guess! BTW, I have another hawk photo posted on my blog that I would love to have you look at!


Hey, I'll take Viburnum acerifolium any day, Tom. Shall I change it in the post? Feel sure about that one?

And Sarah, yes, Cobbler's still in the old shop in the basement of the Dime Bank, but he has a young apprentice now who is the person who put the new soles on my boots. I love that shop--a step back in time.

Geez, a winter thrasher! This brings back memories of that wonderful NPR piece you did about hearing the thrasher as you gardened. "Pick it up pick it up, drop it drop it..."

Smart Wool Socks ... yes! Along with merino wool unders and outers (Ibex or Ice-Breaker)!

It'll be a while before we see Robins here in central B.C.

Julie, it is just a guess. Too bad J.MC. is is Costa Rica, I'd like him to weigh in!


I haven't tried Smartwool socks, but I cannot imagine they could be better than Wigwams. Give them a try. There are several varieties, one designed to meet your specific needs. No, I do not work for the company, but they worked so well in Wisconsin winters that I have recommended them to every hiker or woods walker I know.

Thanks for the great pictures, especially one of my favorite birds, the brown thrasher.

A flock of Robins arrived early winter and I look foward to them again! And, oh, the Brown Thrashers! Maybe in a month or two I'll be able to see them digging for gold.

Great photos of your bird wonderland, full of fruit. Nice boots, too. You must be feeling better.

What's your weather like today? It seems to have been very dramatic lately.

BTW, you have an award waiting for you at my place if you want it.

Such a nice walk! My favorite bird song is the meadowlark... when you hear it along the fencerows in the west, you know spring has come!! Have you added forage like berries and seed plants to help the birds through the winter?

The signs of spring that we're all waiting for.
Thanks for the glimpses of what's to come.

Hey, you're not supposed to fix those boots, you're supposed to throw them away, buy new ones and help the Chinese economy!

I too love robins and, like cardinals and blue jays, imagine how appreciated they would be if they weren't so common. I saw a flock in a field and in the woods Sunday here in eastern Massachusetts, and while I was wishing they were harbingers of spring, I thought it was too early from that and figured they had over-wintered like yours.

The brown thrasher is one of my favorites too, along with the wood thrush. There is something magical about their songs, especially when they echo down in the hollows on the misty spring evenings.

Beautiful photos, Julie. Makes me feel like I've been outside instead of working in a downtown building all day.

Posted by Granny Sue February 6, 2008 at 7:38 PM

Get a grip, Julie!
; )

I wish humans could get shod like horses do....Every new season, a nice little trip to the ferrier.

I love robins - pretty, cheerful, eloquent birds. Someone usually snorts sarcastically or drily says, "score!" when one is pointed out on the local bird walks, but they are just lovely, lovely birds.

My favourite painting in Letters from Eden is the robins. Very spare, almost zen-like in its simplicity contrasted with the rusty red bellies. Ok, it's tied for my favourite by the orgy of colour, ripe berries and blues of the bluebirds! Do you sell prints of either of these?

Julie- outstanding blog and love reading about Chet Baker! Might I mention as to viburnum sp. Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago). They grow like weeds here on my WI farm and the birds have them stripped by Nov. And SmartWool- the ONLY sock to wear.

Terrific post about a simple walk. Dogs, kids, and a relatively warm winter day, topped off by a great bird - what could be better? I know the special place the Brown Thrasher holds in your heart.

I love me my Smartwool socks. Have you tried Fox River socks? A very socio-environmentally responsible company with a good product.

I know the pain of wearing out your favorite hiking boots. I had mine resoled twice until there was nothing left. Finding a new pair was tough. I ended up with a men's style by Ariat, since all the Keens I can find are more like a sport tennis shoe than a boot like yours. I want some ankle support, but not so heavy as to bog me down before I get half-way down the trail.

What? No fossils on this trip?


Haven't seen our Brown Thrashers here yet, and only the occasional Robin. They used to be the one sure sign of spring. "When the red, red robin comes bob bob bobin along...." ;c)

Love that you saved your boots. Nothing like a worn in pair!

To the Two Toms:

Note that the post has now been renamed "Nannyberry Robins!" Thank you so much! I had a chance to do some digging around and heartily concur on the new ID. So glad to know what it really is. I'm going to get a few fruits and see if I can't grow one here in the yard.
Al, you're right. A good consumer would have thrown those boots out and bought some vastly inferior new ones. Cobbler John's shop, while it may be regarded as quaint, is a two-man sit-in protest to that mentality.

Throw me in the group that loves robins. We do have some that overwinter here in the DC area but I am still surprised to see them. A few weeks ago the trees were filled with their song.

I do worry about them not having enough to eat around here. I tried putting out raisins and grapes on the ground but it seems that the possums and raccoons get those.

Thinking about the oddly-shaped tree; I grew up near Cleveland, and there were a number of trees in the less-trammeled parts of the countryside where it was still possible to find native american signal trees (; basically trees bound while saplings to take a form that conveys some message about the trail or a resource; your tree reminds me of one such tree I saw as a youth...

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