I had been waiting for this moment for an entire year: the ripening of berries on a giant pyracantha bush. Last year the crop was disappointing. Worse, European Starlings consumed the whole bunch in just two days, before anybody else could take a bite.

This year, however, the multitude of flowers budding on the pyracantha in September gave me high hopes of a bumper crop of fruit that would draw Western Bluebirds and Phainopeplas to my patio for days. It was with great anticipation, then, that I watched pale orange berries, thousands of them, grow larger and rounder with the passing weeks.

Western Bluebirds were the first to begin sampling the crop as wildfire-smoky October skies passed the baton to an unusually warm and sunny November. Three or four times a day, six individuals announced their arrival with the joyous chorus I wrote about in an earlier post. Downwards from the blue sky above they fluttered, landing gracefully like ballerinas on the upper branches of the bush, and picked the fruit closest to the sun.

Western Bluebird tastes a pyracantha berry.

California Scrub Jays were the next to begin sampling the ripening buffet. They had to have been exhausted from caching thousands of acorns in early November. No doubt these berries would add a fruity flavor to their nutritious, but hard to crack open, nutty mainstay diet. Their raucous screeches and wanton sampling of the berries seemed to express their elation with a seasonal change in the menu.

California Scrub Jay grabs a mouthful of berries.

Phainopeplas were not far behind, dropping in from time to time every day, too. Extremely shy birds, and very cautious in their approach, they came down from the oak canopy only after surveying the surroundings for danger. I heard their call, “wurp, wurp, wurp,” but seldom got the chance to photograph them picking berries as they always hid from view deep in the center of the bush.

Phainopepla furtively steals a berry from the pyracantha bush.

With the arrival of December, the previously pale orange berries now displayed a rich, crimson hue. They became a plump, juicy attraction for a variety of species, more numerous than I ever expected. Birds were in the bush at all hours of the day.

To my surprise, the California Scrub Jays now stopped eating the berries. Perhaps mild neurotoxins in the pomes became too much for their metabolism to absorb. Or, maybe they just had plenty of other things to eat.

It wasn’t long before a flock of American Robins arrived on the scene, taking the place of the jays. Oh my! What gluttons they are. Like a phalanx barreling down upon their target, six individuals at a time swarmed the bush; they swooped down from their redoubt in the surrounding oaks with a swoosh, shaking the pyracantha branches with their momentum. What a dramatic contrast to the delicate, choreographed arrival of the Western Bluebirds.

American Robin swallows a pyracantha berry.

These robins picked berries right and left, not just one or two, but eight, nine, ten, and more, one right after the other. With head raised and a flick of the tongue, they lobbed berries down their esophagus. Then, with their crop full to the brim, they flew off into the shelter of the surrounding oaks, only to return return a short time later for another haul. All day long they came to the buffet, consuming hundreds of berries each day.

Watch an American Robin feverishly pick berries.

House Finches and White-crowned Sparrows are picky eaters. Unlike the other birds, they perch quietly on a branch for several minutes, daintily sampling the fruit with intermittent bites. They have short, stout beaks designed for crunching seeds, not swallowing berries.

A House Finch nibbles on a berry.

The gape of their mouth, too, is small compared to larger species who have long bills and a tongue that lifts the berry and flicks it down the hatch. Consequently, when the finches and sparrows pick a berry, their beaks just squish it; little pieces stick to their bill or fall to the ground. Who knows whether or not they actually swallow anything substantial.

White-crowned Sparrow tries to swallow a berry.

By their very nature, surprises are as ephemeral as they are unexpected. One morning, four Cedar Waxwings discovered my bush; such dramatic looking birds they are with a theatrical black mask, lemon-yellow tail tips, and red wax highlights on their wings. They spent just three days in the neighborhood, and then they were gone. 

Cedar Waxwing holding a berry in its bill.

I might have missed spotting them altogether, though. The particular day of the week I first saw the waxwings is one when I normally do a river kayak outing with a few friends. During a worrisome time of business shutdowns and social distancing, kayaking was one weekly activity I heartily looked forward to. But I didn’t go. The evening before, as I was organizing my gear, a “little bird” told me to stay home, and it was quite persistent in telling me so. So I stayed home to watch the berries disappear instead. It turned out to be a warm, sunny, and most joyful day.

My elation at seeing the Cedar Waxwings was compounded by the appearance of a Red-naped Sapsucker. I first heard its call, then I saw it hanging upside down in the bush. It is rarely seen in my region of California. This beautiful bird was very tolerant of my presence so close-by, but it, too, didn’t stay long.

Red-naped Sapsucker maneuvers a berry with its tongue.

Had I not heeded those whisperings in my ear to stay home, I would have missed seeing two most unusual species which I had long hoped to see and photograph. I sacrificed a day of much-needed camaraderie, and received a visual blessing in return.

Watch a Red-naped Sapsucker swallow a berry.

What a great harvest of berries and bird sightings my pyracantha produced this fall. All told, I counted thirteen species dining on that single bush. In addition to those already mentioned, there were European Starlings (yes, they came back), Northern Mockingbirds, Red-breasted Sapsuckers, a California Towhee, and a Northern Flicker.

As I crossed days off the December calendar, the quantity of berries on my pyracantha diminished inexorably. Formerly numbering in the thousands, I watched the berries disappear right before my very eyes. The stately pyracantha, which once stood like an impenetrable fortress, now lets the morning light shine through; and the branches, no longer laden with fruit, sway gently in a breeze. This vital resource of winter nutrition for my birds has returned to being just an evergreen bush once again.

With all of our travails this year of wildfires, politics, and pandemic, may next year bring a bumper crop of hope, joy … and berries for us all.

Until next time,

Keep birding

Robert Groos

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Robert Groos is a published photographer and keen observer of nature who lives in Yosemite Lakes Park. He shares some of his outstanding images of our local feathered friends along with some tidbits of interesting facts about each. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do. 

Previous posts:
California Scrub-Jay
Great-tailed grackle
What’s good for the goose
It’s nesting time
Wild turkeys on parade
The Pied-Billed Grebe
Hunchback of YLP: The black-crowned night heron
The bluebird
Talking turkey
The secret world of the phainopepla
Acorn woodpecker 
Oak titmouse
White-breasted nuthatch
California quail
Bald eagle
Western kingbird
The turkey vulture