Meet the Plants of Dyke Marsh: Plants of Value to Wildlife in Winter

Many of the plants that grow in Dyke Marsh are of value to wildlife, providing one or more of the animals’ basic needs: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise their young. This article highlights just a few of these plants that help support wildlife in winter.

Bluebird eating poison ivy berries by Ed Eder

Poison ivy berries are of benefit to this Eastern  bluebird. Photo: Ed Eder

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). In late summer to early fall, the poison ivy vine produces dense clusters of small, round berry-like fruits that often persist into winter. The fruits are nondescript in color, being variously described as yellowish, whitish, grayish, or greenish. Though toxic to humans, these fruits are a valuable winter food source for mammals (large and small) and birds. More than sixty species of birds have been documented to eat poison ivy berries. Poison ivy berries are a relatively low quality food; fall migrating birds tend to prefer other, higher quality fruits, and thus the poison ivy berries remain to help resident bird species survive the winter.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). The Virginia creeper vine produces loose clusters of small, round, dark blue-purple fruits beginning in early fall. Both the plant’s garnet-red fall foliage and the fruits’ magenta stems help to draw birds’ attention to these berries. As with poison ivy, these berries are toxic to humans (they are high in oxalic acid) but are safely eaten by birds, primarily songbirds, and other wildlife. The plant can also provide cover for birds and small mammals. Birds that eat Virginia creeper berries include chickadees, nuthatches, mockingbirds, finches, flycatchers, tanagers, swallows, vireos, warblers, woodpeckers, and thrushes.

Northern flicker at Dyke Marsh January 2013 by Ed Eder

The bright red sumac berries attract this Northern flicker. Photo: Ed Eder

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra). The small bright red fruits (drupes) of smooth sumac grow in large conical clusters at the tips of the branches. The fruits mature in the early fall and persist well into the winter, turning a rusty shade, and are a winter food source for many animals. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Sumac Plant Fact Sheet, sumac “serves primarily as a winter emergency food for wildlife” including ring-necked pheasant, bobwhite quail, wild turkey, and about 300 species of songbirds. Some mammals also eat the bark and stems.

Cedar waxwing eating red cedar berries at Dyke Marsh in winter by Ed Eder

The fruit of the Eastern red cedar is a favorite of cedar waxwings. Photo: Ed Eder

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). The female cones of the eastern red cedar, which ripen in September and October, look like berries: round, about ¼ inch in diameter, blue or bluish-purple, and silvery from their waxy coating. These “berries” are very popular with wildlife, most notably the cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), which takes its name from its fondness for the fruits of the eastern red cedar. Numerous other birds and mammals also eat these fruits, and the twigs and foliage are eaten by deer. Eastern red cedars also provide shelter and nesting sites for birds such as robins, song sparrows, and mockingbirds.

By Patricia P. Salamone
Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2019 edition of The Marsh Wren, the newsletter of the Friends of Dyke Marsh.

Photo credits:
Bluebird eating poison ivy berries, Ed Eder
Northern flicker eating sumac berries, Ed Eder
Cedar waxwing eating eastern red cedar berries, Ed Eder

The Furlough and the Graupel

By Susan Jewell

Of all the negative aspects of my furlough from the Department of the Interior under the Federal government shutdown, one event will make me smile whenever I think of it. On Day 19 (January 9), I took a rare weekday hike with a furloughed friend from the State Department. Destinations to choose from were limited by the closing of some National Park sites, so we chose Riverbend Park in Great Falls.  We mostly wanted to get outside and disconnect from the news. I am also a naturalist, so I am always keeping an eye out for something interesting. The bluebirds on the Potomac’s riverbank gave us quite a show, seemingly oblivious to us as we got within easy eyeball viewing. The weather was cloudy and around 40°F, with a drop in temperature predicated from a front in late afternoon.

Toward the end of our hike, as we walked along the Potomac River, the wind picked up and I knew the front was coming. I looked upriver and saw what seemed to be a squall line of rain heading our way—a “curtain” of decreased visibility.  I exclaimed to my friend that it was about to pour and fumbled for rain gear in my pack. When I looked up a minute later, the curtain was an opaque wall of white and was almost upon us. Then the curtain was upon us, and rather than the downpour I expected, what fell from the sky was precipitation the likes of which I’d never seen or heard of.

I’ve lived from Maine to Florida, and I was baffled. It wasn’t rain, freezing rain, sleet, hail, or snow. What else was there? These were barley-sized pellets of compressed snow—solid, but very soft and quiet. They didn’t melt on us or even on the warm ground as snowflakes would. They didn’t bounce or sting like hail.  After few minutes, I began to get a kick out of this innocuous precipitation that looked like little pieces of styrofoam. The pellets fell for 15 or 20 minutes and were blown by the wind into piles that I could scoop up. Soon I was laughing with glee and grateful I got to experience this unusual phenomenon, whatever it was.

Graupel on Trillium

Graupel on Trillium by dlr_ license CC-BY-NC-ND

Apparently, the pellets fell over more than just the Potomac River.  As I drove home from Riverbend Park, the meteorologist on the radio explained about the “graupel” that had fallen. I memorized the word and looked it up when I got home. The World Meteorological Organization says it’s “Snow pellets. Precipitation, usually of brief duration, consisting of crisp, white, opaque ice particles, round or conical in shape and about 2-5 mm in diameter.”  I never know what delights I’ll find when I go outside.

*    *   *

Post Script – The next evening, I attended the VNPS Potowmack Chapter’s monthly meeting, featuring Charles Smith’s program “How Plants Move.” The program room at Green Spring Gardens was packed. Maybe I was not the only furloughed Federal employee who suddenly had extra time to take advantage of the great programming? I also attended the Winter Greens Field Trip at Fraser Preserve that weekend with Margaret Chatham.  Between the two events, I realized how important VNPS was to keeping me connected with like-minded people when I suddenly was disconnected from my work and colleagues.  Thank you, VNPS!

Susan Jewell is a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and a member of the VNPS Potowmack Chapter.

Notes from the Understory

June 2018—Leaps and bounds

The next wave of flowers have bloomed, adding small dashes of yellow, white, pink, and purple to the vivid green of the leaves that dominate now. Each species seems to have its own personality. Some protect their flowers by closing up every evening: the Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) balances its purple flowers on long legs for a few morning hours, yellow sundrops (Oenothera fruticose) stay open until late afternoon in large self-seeding clumps. The pasture rose (Rosa carolina) attracts its pollinators with floppy pink petals that always seem on the brink of falling off.

The understory is attracting the usual fauna: Carolina chickadees are finding protection deep in the branches of the American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) shrubs, which are covered with white flower umbels; house finch couples are already nibbling at the green seed heads of the lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata); chipmunks and squirrels are unearthing white oak (Quercus alba) acorn caches; rabbits are stripping the bottom leaves off of small white American aster (Symphyotrichum racemosum).

Goodbye until next spring to the swaths of purple lent to us by the Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), crested iris (Iris cristata), curleyheads (Clematis ochroleuca), violet woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea), common blue violet (Viola sororia), wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata), Carolina geranium (Geranium carolinianum), and wild geranium (Geranium maculatum).

By Dean Arkema

Coming up: Identifying sedges and grasses that came from our seedbank.