Oriole season

Bruce Mactavish telegram@thetelegram.com
Published on September 14, 2013
An occasional and colourful visitor to Newfoundland — the Baltimore oriole. — Photo by Ken Knowles/Special to The Telegram

I can only think of two birds in Newfoundland with Halloween colours. One of them, the American redstart is a common breeding warbler, although only the male redstart wears the black and orange colours.

The other species doesn’t breed in Newfoundland at all, but every year at this time, it shows up in small numbers. The name, Baltimore oriole, has a Ferryland connection, since it wears the colours of Lord Baltimore’s coat of arms. Now is the best time to look for this beautiful oriole in Newfoundland.

Baltimore orioles shouldn’t be here, but since their breeding range includes the Maritimes, it doesn’t take much of a southwest wind to blow them across to us in their fall migration. They are supposed to be heading for the tropics, but orioles are only one of many species that get off course with the wrong winds in the fall. What would Newfoundland birders do without winds from all quarters? Hopefully the wrong-way orioles will fatten up on berries, get re-oriented, and continue their journey south.

Some orioles that don’t manage to get their GPSs fixed can actually survive a Newfoundland winter. In summer they eat a lot of caterpillars and other insects, but in fall they turn to berries. Birders often locate them with flocks of fall robins, feasting on our dogberries. This year is a great dogberry year so there should be lots of such flocks. You can listen for a kingfisher-like chatter, that clearly doesn’t come from a robin.

Fortunately for the orioles, they can adapt well to the presence of humans. In their normal range they favour broadleaf woods, so you can imagine their horror when they arrive on the Avalon and grasp the tree situation. They head for the cities, where introduced deciduous trees and berry bushes make them feel more at home. This week we will see them near the coast, but as the weather gets more wintry, and the dogberries more scarce, how you gonna keep ’em down on the farm?

If an oriole should brighten your yard, here is how you can help. Orioles love nectar. They have even adapted to drinking from hummingbird feeders, although those tiny perches are an issue. They get the same type of nourishment from fruit slices, so if you nail a half orange to a feeder or nearby tree, you may have an oriole friend for the winter. Grape jelly is another favourite, and many other types of berries will work in a pinch. Then pray for a mild winter.

Along with the Baltimore oriole, two other species of oriole have occurred in our province. There have been a few fall occurrences of the orchard oriole, which has a slightly more southern range than the Baltimore and tends to look more greenish yellow than the orangey-yellow of the fall Baltimore.

The third oriole species has appeared in Newfoundland only once — the remarkable arrival of a Bullocks oriole in St. John’s in December of 2007. Probably it had come here much earlier, but only showed up at a feeder when winter settled in, and berries became scarce. The Bullocks oriole is the western North American near-twin of the Baltimore oriole. This one could be identified by the dark chin area and other minor features. A great effort was made to help it through the winter, but sadly it couldn’t out-compete the more aggressive feeder birds for enough nourishment.

The oriole is the Frank Lloyd Wright of birds. Try and imagine yourself building a pouch-shaped home that is securely suspended from a tree branch, using only locally available plant materials. Wait, there is more: your only construction tool is a bird bill. As someone who once tried to build a small dog house, on flat ground, using every tool available to mankind, I have only admiration and envy for the oriole. My dog house, if you are interested, ended up looking like a hybrid dory/train car. The dog hasn’t used it yet.

Did I mention that the oriole nest is also beautiful?


With perfect timing for today’s Winging It, at press deadline the first oriole of the fall was reported by Lisa deLeon from Fair Haven Road near Belleview.

The Land bird of the week award goes to the beautiful prothonotary warbler discovered by Anne Hughes in Trepassey.

The rarest bird this week however, is surprisingly not a land bird and not a shorebird. It is a brown booby (no giggling please), a gannet-like seabird, and only the second one ever to be recorded in Newfoundland waters. This bird posed on the railing of a seismic vessel on the Grand Banks to the amazement and delight of all aboard, and to the dismay of your regular columnist Bruce Mactavish, marooned on a different vessel farther north.

Keep those rare bird reports coming!

While Bruce Mactavish is out of the province, Ken Knowles is watching the Winging It email, wingingitone@yahoo.ca.