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Northland Nature: Crab apples in winter

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

Crab apples 1 for Larry Weber column
Crab apples as seen in January. Note one partially eaten.
Contributed / Larry Weber

Mid-January is upon us. As expected, chilly temperatures with an ample snow cover are what we deal with each day. When temperatures drop to subzero or when a foot of snow falls over the scene, we may have some difficulties going about our usual lives, but with some planning, shoveling and help from friendly neighbors we get through these tough times.

Many of us, being well-fed and sheltered, find these conditions as being benign and we participate in much outdoor winter recreation.

But much of the wildlife surviving winter here with us needs to struggle to get by. I notice tracks each day that tell of deer, mice, squirrels and rabbits — all seeking sheltered meals. Tracks and trails of weasels, foxes and coyotes who are looking for any available prey that they can find are also seen. There is a daily struggle during the dark and cold season.

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Besides these mammals that winter here, there are many birds present as well. These are permanent residents that live with us all year and remain active in winter: chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and blue jays with maybe some robins and goldfinches.
Other birds are winter visitors — those that breed in the far north, but come to us as a place to spend the cold season. These are often finches: redpolls, pine siskins, pine grosbeaks and crossbills with some juncos. Many of these birds can be seen at feeders and it is easy to think that they would not survive winter without our handouts.

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Crab apples 2 for Larry Weber column
Crab apples as seen on a tree in September.
Contributed / Larry Weber

But there is plenty of food available away from the feeders. This could be seeds of roadside plants like tansy, but also fruits and berries of trees.

Last spring, we noted the flowering of small trees in May — plums, cherries, juneberries, elderberries, mountain-ashes, highbush cranberries, hawthorns and crab apples — as they bloomed on the roadsides. These delightful blossoms were discovered by pollinating insects and they developed into fruits and berries in the summer and fall.

I remember walking last September among the ripe products of plums, chokecherries, mountain-ashes, highbush cranberries, hawthorns and crab apples. Most were red after the leaves departed from the trees, they showed up clearly. Birds, small mammals and bears were quick to locate them and the fruits and berries were rapidly gone, some lasting longer than others. As we advanced to winter, I noted that highbush cranberries, mountain-ashes and crab apples seemed to be the only ones still on the trees.

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

But with plenty of hungry birds and following a hot, dry summer, fewer of these arboreal foods were to be found. I took a November walk to visit a few crab apples that I was familiar with, only to find bare trees. I continued the search until I did find a grove of trees with many holding crab apples, not looking as delicious as they did a few months ago.

Crab apples are essentially just like little apples. They are closely related to the domestic apples and can be both wild and tame. I was not the only one to find them. Starlings, robins, Bohemian waxwings and pine grosbeaks discovered them, too.

Now, in mid-winter, fewer fruits are present, but the ones here even if partially eaten and frozen will still be found. The crab apples present on the trees now are dry and shriveled, but still contain some nutrition and wintering birds will go for them.

We have weeks of winter to go, the pickings may be slim, but winter crab apples are still present.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber

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