Each July, for several years now, a friend has been telling me about a tree in his yard that bears such abundant fruit that over a dozen species of birds fly in for an early summer feast. The gathering has become the signature wildlife event on the property. This year I made a point to go see the tree.
It was a western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), a member of the Rose family. While it is most often regarded as a shrub, some plants grow more than 20 feet tall and take on the air of handsome trees. Serviceberry, in some form, is native across this country and Canada, also called Saskatoon, Juneberry and Sarvisberry. Here in the islands, it is found along the rocky margins of coniferous woodlands, beside stream beds, in meadows, thickets and near rocky shores. It is popular with gardeners looking for Northwest natives that attract wildlife.
I made my pilgrimage to the serviceberry one morning about nine o'clock. The tree was poised along the shore of Griffin Bay - a fine old form reaching skyward from multiple stout stems to a height of about 18 feet. Its gray hide was punctuated with light green, brown and yellow lichens. It was cloaked in small, soft green leaves: oval, fine-veined and thin- skinned. The top half of each leaf blade was finely serrated.
I remember one spring, early in my botanizing, finding a serviceberry while walking with a friend at the Labs. We spotted a single tall shrub that glistened with large, white 5-petaled flowers. It was a pristine presence along a rocky slope, but its partially serrated leaves - not the profuse blooms - were my lasting impression of the plant.
This serviceberry by the bay was likely decades older than that sapling at the Labs. Some trees live 60 years. Its branches were laden with bundles of fruit. The ripe berries had a purplish-blue cast reminiscent of the succulent blueberries and huckleberries I covet on Mt. Baker.
The birds had been there gorging on the sweet orbs for hours before I arrived. I could hear their cacophonous calls almost before I saw the tree. The air was a riot of chortles, buzzy trills, meows, whistles and exuberant chatter. The gathering seemed at first chaotic, the birds having suspended their territoriality in favor of co-mingling to sate their appetites, but each species found its niche in the big tree.
At ground level, a covey of California Quail was taking its leave sidestepping rabbits on the way to the underbrush. Spotted Towhees pecked at fruit on lower branches of the tree that had not already been stripped of fruit by the black-tailed deer. The mid-section of the serviceberry was the American Robins' domain. Juveniles - still sporting speckled breasts - careened onto the boughs. There was such a glut of fruit, the robins seemed overwhelmed in their attempts to pick all the berries. For young birds, this was an ideal place to learn the finer points of foraging.
In the ample crown of the tree, Purple Finches, House Finches and Pine Siskins were more intent on extracting seeds from the berries than in partaking of the pulp. A tiny Chestnut-backed Chickadee clung upside-down to a bundle of fruit.
I spied an American Goldfinch, a shiny yellow beacon among the bright green leaves. It ducked to avoid an incoming flock of Cedar Waxwings. The sleek waxwings were washed in soft cinnamon and pale yellow plumage, the tips of their tails looking as though they had been dipped in bright yellow ink. They whirred through the tangle of branches swallowing the berries whole. Dark eyes gleamed behind their black masks suggesting a robbery was in progress.
I watched for about forty minutes as dozens of birds streamed in and out of the tree, an activity that continued all day. Some years the berry harvest was gone in 48 hours, but this July the starlings kept their distance and the feast went on for over a week.
As I stood enjoying the spectacle, I noticed my friend scanning the yard. He was on hawk watch, and soon a dark form made a swift pass near the serviceberry trying to flush a young bird from the wildlife tree.
With a break in the action, I sat a spell listing the birds drawn to this harvest: robins, thrushes, flickers, towhees, waxwings, finches, chickadees, siskins, juncos, quail and crows had all been there. Grosbeaks, tanagers and even woodpeckers also forage in serviceberry. In April and May, the nectar of its blooms had fueled spring azure butterflies and the larvae(caterpillars) of swallowtails and other species probably feed on the leaves.
Visiting the serviceberry reminded me of the importance one tree can have to a community of wildlife. There were several other serviceberries in the yard - much younger than this venerable tree. The owners of the property planted them once they realized what a bonanza serviceberry was to the birds and to other wildlife. Bundles of green berries hung from the branches of the younger trees promising a succession of fruit in the weeks ahead.
There are, of course, other shrubs and trees bearing fruit now including thimbleberries, salal, dewberry, currants and twinberry. As the year progresses blackberries, madrones and hawthorns will help carry some birds through the island year. But for the moment, serviceberry is the prize.
I glanced back at the scene as I was leaving. Sunlight poured across the bay filtering through layers of soft green leaves onto the frame of the old tree. A juvenile Cedar Waxwing perched quietly preening and resting in the glow, while all-around adults continued the feast. This was a good year for the serviceberry and for the birds, too.
Susan Vernon is a writer and naturalist who lives on San Juan Island. San Juan Nature Notebook / The serviceberry and the waxwings / copyright 2003 by Susan Vernon.
Photographs copyright 2003 by Ron Keeshan.
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