All who wander may not be lost, but sometimes, they are seriously off-course. Take the subadult Bullock’s oriole, for example, sighted numerous times since February 18 at a backyard feeder in Milton. He’s a pretty little thing, not yet a year old; according to Mark DeDea, president of the John Burroughs Natural History Society, the bird probably hatched in late May or early June of 2015. But he’s a Western bird, rarely found east of the Mississippi River and usually wintering in western Mexico.
So what is he doing in Ulster County this winter? DeDea says that it’s impossible to know for sure, but because the oriole is one of a species that lives along a broad swath of land up and down the West Coast, going all the way up to Canada, this is probably a bird from the northern part of that range who wandered southeast at migration time rather than fully south. “The likelihood of a northern bird wandering southeast is a little more reasonable to understand than a bird that was, let’s say, hatched in Southern California going east.”
As for whether our mild winter had anything to do with the bird’s decision to visit New York, DeDea says that it at least speaks to the fact that it survived until February. “First off, orioles are generally not a bird that comes to a birdfeeder. They have a long pointed beak that allows them to extract nectar from a flower or to glean caterpillars from a tree branch, but is not really designed to crack open sunflower seeds.” An oriole that survives out of season here is doing so by adapting: eating suet cakes like the ones that this bird found at the Milton backyard feeder.
The young Bullock’s oriole hit the birding scene here after Milton homeowner David Baxter submitted a report of its sighting in his backyard to eBird.org, an online resource hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The free-to-use database of bird observations provides scientists, researchers and amateur naturalists with real-time data about bird distribution and abundance. “It’s a useful vehicle,” says DeDea. “You can submit your observations and they’re used for all kinds of scientific research, but it’s also a generous gift for birders. And if you’re traveling – let’s say coming to Ulster County from Connecticut to see the Bullock’s oriole – you can click on a map of the destination and also see the various birding sites in the county based on eBird submissions.”
The bird was initially reported by Baxter to be an orchard oriole, one that normally resides in these parts but winters south. DeDea says that it’s actually more likely in a way that this Western bird should end up here than a bird that lives here to have stuck around for the winter. At any rate, when John Burroughs Natural History Society member Peter Schoenberger visited Milton a few days later to photograph the bird, he confirmed that it was, indeed, a Bullock’s oriole, and a young one at that.
The last time a Bullock’s oriole was sighted in our area during the winter was in Phoenicia in 2007, and that was an adult male. A Bullock’s oriole is a Western cousin of the Baltimore oriole, which, like the orchard oriole, resides in the Northeast but winters south. For years the birds were classified together as Northern orioles, because their habits and song are similar and because they often interbreed where their ranges come in contact on the western Great Plains. (Or as DeDea puts it, “There are times when a Bullock’s male may convince a Baltimore female that he’s the right guy for her, and they do hybridize.”)
As of presstime, the Bullock’s oriole in Milton is still with us. Considering the hurdles that it faced just to get here in the first place – predators, cell towers, skyscrapers, winter food shortages and outdoor cats – that’s pretty amazing. A large percentage of the population of songbirds in any case don’t make it to adulthood. But a local Cooper’s hawk who is also loyal to the Baxter backyard may yet turn out to be the villain of this piece. “It’s reality,” says DeDea. “He’s looking for food, too, and he eats medium-sized songbirds. We’re keeping our fingers crossed we don’t witness that, but we wish him well, too.”
See the society’s website for a list of upcoming field trips.