For about a year now I have worked with David Wiesenberg of the Wooster Book Co.; Stephen Tomasko, a photographer with shows as far afield as Paris and the Akron Art Museum and Kenny Cochran, curator of Ohio State University’s Secrest Arboretum in Wooster on a project titled The Thirty-Six Views of Secrest.
The idea comes from the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai and his woodblock prints of the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and Cal-Berkeley’s landscape architect Joseph McBride’s Thirty Six Views of Mount Tamalpais. We are focusing on the changing seasons of perspective and time, viewing and photographing nuances of the natural and nurtured landscape of the arboretum, from the growth and senescence of sweet gum balls and the flowering and fruiting of crab apples to the awakening and overwintering of insects such as tent caterpillars and bagworms and plant pathogens such as the cedar apple rust fungus.
Last week during a late afternoon walk, we enjoyed the overall scenes of winterberry holly plantings and the distant russet-gold of the dawn redwood grove, the uprising remnant fruits of tulip trees, and the exotic reds and salmon fruits of invasive European euonymus. We were awakened, though, to another view of Secrest when we came upon two birders extraordinaire: Greg Miller (gregmillerbirding.com) and Robert Hershberger.
Wiesenberg, editor of the Bobolink magazine, knew them well, but Tomasko and I were about to become enchanted.
Miller and Hershberger were in search of Bohemian waxwings, Townsend’s solitaire, and the white-winged crossbill (Loxia leucoptera), a bird of the more northerly boreal forests not usually found at Secrest. Because pine cone production was sparse up north this year, however, they suspected the species had expanded its territory.
Secrest had plenty of cone production and it is also a great environment for birds in general, with many fruiting trees and shrubs and a diversity of habitats. Miller pulled out his iPhone and the Sibley bird guide app, which along with pictures played us crystal-clear versions of the various songs and calls of the crossbill. Lo and behold not much later, the song was heard from the real deal. Or was it?
In truth, we were being mocked by the northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), which is quite abundant at Secrest.
The birders did not on this day find the crossbill, but the mocking call of Mimus polyglottos proved it had been around.
That nifty nature story got us all to talking and I learned a good bit about Miller. A Wayne County native and now a resident of Sugar Creek in Tuscarawas County, Miller was profiled in the book and subsequent movie, The Big Year. The 2004 book by Mark Obmascik has the subtitle: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession.
It details three men, indeed obsessed by something known to birders as Big Year in which the challenge is to see how many bird species you can sight in North America in a calendar year.
The year of the book is 1998 and one of the three set the still-standing record of 745 species (in 2011 a Colorado birder came within one of the record). To prevent spoilers for those who have not read the book or seen the movie, I will not tell you the “winner,” but suffice it to say that it is a fascinating journey.
The movie came out in 2011 and Miller is played by Jack Black with the other two birders portrayed by Owen Wilson and Steve Martin, so you can imagine it reflects the zany, obsessional, but sweet side of birding through the stories of Miller and his competitors.
This week, as we walked with Miller and Hershberger for awhile, an idea was hatched or at least re-hatched. It’s an idea that fellow crabarians Erik Draper and Kenny Cochran and I have dreamed of for some time. Secrest Arboretum is the premier site for the International Ornamental Crabapple Society, with great collections of crab apples even after the 2010 tornado that destroyed many crab apple trees at the arboretum.
Years ago, when Draper and I did year-round monthly evaluations to develop comprehensive profiles of the flower, foliage, fruit and form features of crab apples, we noticed how bird-beloved crab apples are, but not indiscriminately. Certain birds came at certain times on certain crab apple cultivars.
We always wished we could engage a group of birders to make specific visits each year, say every few days or every week, to report on the specific feeding habits of different birds on our 76 types of crab apples in our replicated, randomized plots.
Enter now into our imaginations, readers, Miller and other birders. Hershberger and Miller already had noted that Secrest was “underbirded.” We thought they meant there was a paucity of avian species, but not so, Secrest has a great edge effect supply of bird species. In fact Miller noted: “You never know what you will see out here.”
What they meant is that Secrest lacks a corresponding number of regular birders, visiting and doing their birding. I ask you, and them, what better attraction than a regular research-driven replicated randomized trial about which crab apples matter. Stay tuned.
On Nov. 16, Wiesenberg confirmed a Secrest sighting of the white-winged crossbill, along Green Drive.
This Thanksgiving weekend, get thee to the woodlands for botanizing and birding.
Jim Chatfield is a horticultural educator with Ohio State University Extension. If you have questions about caring for your garden, write: Jim Chatfield, Plant Lovers’ Almanac, Ohio State University Extension, 1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691. Send email to email@example.com or call 330-466-0270. Please include your phone number if you write.