The temperature when we started our walk was a whole 1 degree Fahrenheit. That number, however, was slowly climbing and there wasn’t a hint of wind to speak of. The sun was shining brightly, and the sky was as blue as you can imagine. In other words, a perfect day to spend several hours outside.
I was visiting my brother in upstate New York near the Vermont border, and two other brothers from out of town were there as well. Paul and I took a relatively short and absolutely birdless walk before returning to Gregg’s house. We both commented on how the single-digit temperatures were having little effect on us because it was a deadly calm day. So why go back inside just because the walk is over?
Gregg lives near an expansive field bordered by woods so Paul opened the hatch to his car and broke out a bag of flying discs. One of his hobbies is disc golf and he’s always prepared — just like I always have a pair of binoculars in the glove compartment.
I had never really played disc golf before, so Paul taught me the basics of how to throw the discs. It is, as you can probably imagine, very similar to throwing a regular Frisbee, but it is a little different. I don’t know if it will become my next great hobby, but it was a fun learning experience and it was nice to be outside. Besides, Paul has been on countless bird walks with me and he’s not a birdwatcher, so it was only fair that I give his hobby a shot.
Even as we walked back and forth in about 5 inches of hard snow to retrieve the discs, the birds remained at bay. You didn’t think I was going to be in a field bordering woods and not keep at least one eye out for birds, did you? A loan pileated woodpecker that I had heard pounding on a tree trunk and later found high in a bare oak tree was the only bird I saw, except for a crow flyover or two.
Finally, as I approached a row of bushes in Gregg‘s yard, most likely to retrieve one of my errant throws, I noticed movement among the branches. They were chickadees and there were a lot of them. The chickadees were moving up and down the long row of bushes and pausing for several minutes at a small cluster of staghorn sumac trees. Time for a short break from throwing discs. I retrieved my camera (I’m always prepared too), got the sun behind me and snapped off a few photos of the chickadees before returning to my new sport.
It was interesting to see the chickadees work the clusters of sumac berries. I believe it was the first time I had seen chickadees devour sumac berries and I was intrigued. Upon later researching it, sumac is a very valuable tree for birds. The berries, of course, provide food for chickadees and many other birds. The berries also are home to insects, which are eaten by birds that prefer insects.
Sumac is also used for nesting sites in the spring and summer. Sumac grows wildly and easily, so it would be a good tree to add to someone’s landscape. It is also a native planting, which makes it that much more appealing.
Sumac trees are not to be confused with poison sumac, which is an unrelated plant more closely related to poison ivy. Sumac is also often confused with another nefarious plant: Alanthus, or Tree of Heaven, closely resembles sumac in appearance, but is not native and very invasive and undesirable.
The New England landscape can appear rather dreary and muted in the winter, with brown and gray tree trunks the dominant sight. To see the bright red clusters of berries being worked over by chickadees was a welcome sight indeed. Add in the brilliant blue sky, perfectly calm weather and a new hobby, and it was a fine way to spend a few hours with family.