Most other forest fruit is long gone, but now, when winter-stressed creatures need it most, fireberry hawthorn serves up its sweet red or pinkish-orange mini apples. From Newfoundland to Pennsylvania and west to the Rockies, some of the more avid consumers include deer, bears, small rodents, ruffed grouse, fox sparrows, robins, cedar waxwings, western and eastern bluebirds, and people (who eat them raw or incorporate them into pies and preserves). Few plants are more tolerant of wind or cold, a hardiness that makes fireberry hawthorn especially useful for shelterbelts and erosion control. And its fruit, along with the cover it provides with its many long thorns, will attract wildlife to your yard while simultaneously beautifying it. “Many are the allusions to the hawthorns of England in poetry and prose,” wrote 19th and early 20th century botanist Eloise Butler. “It is pertinent to ask why writers neglect to extol the American species. For our hawthorn trees or shrubs are of extreme beauty, when covered with their snowy fleece of bloom, or when glowing with the sweet tasting, stony bright red ‘thorn apples.’”
6 | Winter Flings
Beaches and tidal flats from southern Alaska and Massachusetts to Mexico can get crowded with people and dogs in spring, summer, and fall. But at least in the northern part of this range, when spindrift freezes in the air and one has to lean into the chapping sea wind to make forward progress, you can somehow find solitude. Gone are the shoals of predator fish and the screaming gulls and terns that hovered over them. The scene is far from lifeless, though. Enormous flocks of medium-size sandpipers called dunlins (from the Anglo-Saxon “dunn,” for dark brown) forage for worms, mollusks, and crustaceans, stabbing the sand and mud methodically and rapidly with stout, down-curved bills—a feeding behavior that has given the species its alternate name of “sewing machine.” Watch these birds in flight as the tight flock, called a “fling,” moves in synchrony, each turn rippling through it as if it were a kite tail in the wind. Researchers believe this is learned behavior that unschooled juveniles can’t master, which makes them particularly vulnerable to falcon predation. Flings made dunlins easy quarry for shotgunners during market-hunting days, when their populations were greatly reduced.