Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Orioles--A Cautionary Tale

It's a beautiful morning this morning in the hamlet and yet here I am at the computer instead of out in the field. I was just about to go, but hearing the song of the Baltimore oriole I was reminded that I wanted to write this story, so I thought I would try to quickly get it down before I was distracted yet again.

One day last week I was out in the field, at the edge of the far field, at my best warbler spot, checking for the Brewster's as usual, but also hoping to see and hear a magnolia warbler. The magnolia warbler has a rather difficult to get hold of song--a little like the chestnut-sided, according to my sources, but not as strong, and not as distinct. And I've got a chestnut-sided that sings often and varies its song quite a bit. I know that there are magnolias out there (I've seen them a couple of times), so what I need is to see one singing so that I can match the song to the bird. I was having a good morning--there was a lot of activity, lots of song and lots of birds, all within the small area of bramble and shrub at the rock I've taken to standing on that gives me a good view of a couple of dead trees that the warblers and others will sometimes use as a perch from which to sing. From my notes: Brewster's singing and seen, black-and-white warbler singing, field sparrows singing and pair feeding, catbird duet singing, unidentified warblers and others singing, magnolia warbler (possibly pair) seen, yellow warbler seen.

All the while I was noticing out of the corner of my eye and with half an ear that there was an oriole in the poplars on the other side of the field. The Baltimore oriole is a confirmed breeder in my Breeding Atlas square, and has been for some time. There is almost always a pair nesting in the backyard, so this is a bird I know by sight and sound very well, and not one that I pay much attention too except for idle pleasure. So I wasn't paying much attention to this one, intent as I was on seeing and hearing magnolias and others. But I kept hearing a small voice in my head saying, "look at the oriole," and "there's something funny about that oriole." I'd glance over, but I never put the binoculars on it.

Finally burned out on hearing and seeing for the day I started back across the field headed home when a bird I'd never seen before gleaning in the willow shrubs growing under the poplars at the eastern edge of the field caught my attention. I stopped to study it for a while--had a very good look, had a field guide with me, but had no idea what it was or where to start looking for it. I guessed it might be some kind of vireo, but couldn't find one that fit, and it was really far to big. It wasn't until I was back home and remembered that "funny" oriole that I was able to find the unknown bird. It was a female orchard oriole (see second image on this page). And the singing oriole in the tops of the poplars was most likely a male orchard oriole, but because I never took a good look at it I'll never really know for sure.

The orchard oriole is not a rare bird, but it is a "regionally rare" bird. Until very recently it was unheard of this bird to breed this far north, but like several other species, due to who knows what combination of changes to weather patterns, habitat, land use patterns, etc., they are moving north. I've never seen one before, but it is almost certain that there was a pair out there in the field last week, and that the male was singing. And where there was a pair at the end of May, there will likely be a breeding pair somewhere around here, if not right here in 18UQ11.

How I missed getting a good look at both these birds is that it just never occurred to me that I might see them, and worse, and this is what I will call the not-quite-a-rookie-anymore mistake, I blindly assumed that any oriole I saw around here was a Baltimore oriole! Even though I've never forgotten the incredible story of the birders flocking to my friend's sister's backyard near High Park in Toronto to see the rare female summer tanager (as opposed to the more common female scarlet tanager). The moral of which is that the unexpected do turn up sometimes, and some of those times they look almost exactly like the commonplace.

But enough is enough--I must get out before the sun gets any higher, and take nothing for granted.

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