Explore Tahoe: Oh where, oh where have all the robins gone? | SierraSun.com

Explore Tahoe: Oh where, oh where have all the robins gone?

Toree’s Stories
Toree Warfield
An American robin, poised to grab its next meal of berries on a snow-covered tree branch in Reno.
Courtesy Melanie Warfield |

For the last several years, at least one pair of robins stayed the winter here at Lake Tahoe. I know, because I could hear them “talking” up the hill from where I walk daily. But not this year.

I was pondering that fact last week, wondering where they were riding out the winter, when my daughter, Melanie, sent me a picture — apparently, a number of the birds have been visiting her yard in Reno, gorging on bright orange berries on an evergreen bush growing at the side of her house.

Between the two of us and with confirmation from a master gardener, we learned it is a firethorn bush in the genus of Pyracantha which includes large, thorny evergreen shrubs in the family Rosaceae.

The plant produces white flowers in late spring through early summer, grows between 6 and 16 feet tall and almost as wide. The berries begin forming in late summer into autumn and subsist into winter.

Lake Tahoe areas generally are in the 5-6 zone of the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, and the fire thorn is considered hardy in zones 6-9, which does not mean that it cannot grow here.

Microclimates do exist in different areas, even around your own yard. If you want to attract winter birds to your yard and decide to plant this shrub, choose an area somewhat protected that gets winter sun.

The shrub probably won’t get very large but hopefully will produce enough berries to attract the birds and add some winter color.

Keep in mind the leaves are prickly and will snag clothing so you don’t want it too close to where people usually walk. The shrub grows densely, has thorns and, combined with the prickly leaves, makes this a good choice wherever an impenetrable barrier is needed.

The seeds of the berries contain small amounts of cyanide (as do the seeds of apples, plums and cherries), making the berries eaten whole slightly toxic, which would explain the somewhat drunken behavior of the robins after they made a meal of the berries.

The berries can be made into jelly by crushing and rinsing to remove the seeds.

The robins will remain abundant in Melanie’s yard in Reno while the berries last. Robins do migrate, but not necessarily, because they follow the food, not the warmth. Robins do well in areas with an average temperature of 36 degrees F.

American robins can withstand the cold, relying on fruit in the winter and will stay in the north until the food sources become scarce; then migrating perhaps further south, returning to their breeding grounds in the spring, when worms can be dug from the ground.

There wouldn’t be enough food available if all robins were to stay on their breeding grounds for the winter so most do make their way to southern states and Mexico but they do not go as far as South America, as many birds do.

Ecuador is on my list of places to visit, ideally during January or February, though the weather is much the same year-round. Not only does Ecuador have a slew of colorful resident birds, many of North America’s birds spend the winter in Central and South America.

Birds in Ecuador that migrate down from the north are referred to as boreal migrants and include such Tahoe species as northern osprey, killdeer, western wood-pewee, olive-sided flycatcher, yellow warbler, rose-breasted grosbeak and many more.

Not only would it be a treat to see my feathered friends from home, but Ecuador, including the Galápagos Islands, is home to over 1,600 species of bird, many of them colorful.

Since Ecuador sits on the equator, the weather is most always hot, humid and wet, which means it is lush and green. I am not suited for hot and humid but given its beauty and bounty of birds, I think I can tolerate it for a week.

While dreaming of far-away lands and exotic birds, for now I must content myself by enjoying the birds we have on hand. A flock of pygmy nuthatches greets me on my daily walks, twittering and flitting which always makes me smile; in addition to the chickadees, Steller’s jays, spotted towhees and dark-eyed juncos that visit my feeders.

For the adventurous, there is an upcoming “Woodpecker Watching with Bird Tahoe” event on Saturday, Feb. 11, on the south shore. This is a 3-hour, 3-mile snowshoe trek around Fallen Leaf Lake, sponsored by Tahoe Institute for Natural Science. See tinsweb.org for more info or to register.

Toree Warfield is an avid nature lover, and writes this column to teach and stimulate interest in the marvels that surround us. Visit saveourplanetearth.com to read columns and to find links to bird song recordings, additional photos and other content.