Essay: An unexpected winter visitor

Essay: An unexpected winter visitor

On Sunday morning two weeks ago there was a fluffy orange mound huddled in the tray of my birdfeeder. I thought I had eaten too much French toast and syrup. Was this a Baltimore oriole? It seemed impossible. I looked through the Sibley Guide to Birds to see what else it might be and spent the rest of the morning with one eye on the Sunday crossword puzzle and the other on the feeder. My best guess was that I had seen a very cold juvenile male Baltimore oriole. It or, rather, he did not return.

Northern Oriole

Northern Oriole — Photo by Laura Wainwright

The next few days I spent too much time wondering and worrying about this beautiful bird, perhaps projecting some of my own winter concerns and anxieties onto him. I kept flipping through the pages of my bird books hoping the bird I’d seen wasn’t a Baltimore oriole but another species, one more suited to surviving our winters. I checked websites on line. According to the Cornell website, Baltimore orioles, now called northern orioles, should be wintering in Mexico or the Caribbean or even as far south as the northern part of South America, not shivering in snowy, windswept West Tisbury.

It is not unprecedented to see a northern oriole on the Island at this time of year, but it is unusual. In the first edition of Vineyard Birds, Susan Whiting and Barbara Pesch report “Extreme late dates (for northern orioles) are 1/22/70 (Hancock) and 1/30/80 (Laux).” For a bird species that generally travels by us from May to September, my sighting if correct was worrisome.

Whenever I was home I hovered by windows overlooking the birdfeeder. I found reasons to fold laundry or cook or pay bills in close proximity, but there was no sign of him. Two mornings later my diligence was rewarded. There he was in the feeder tray fluffed out as much as possible picking at a sunflower seed. This time I had the presence of mind to grab my digital camera and take some photographs.

A rookie birder, I needed the backup of an expert to be sure I was actually seeing a northern oriole. My hope was to be able to reach Sue Whiting for confirmation. I was a little nervous about this, because once before I’d been certain I had a rare hummingbird on my feeder and took pictures and sent them to Sue. I even called and disturbed her in Florida, only to learn that my bird was a cold ruby throat, nothing special, except to me.

I reached Sue at home. She asked some key questions. What colors were the wings? They were black and white. What part of it was orange? Almost all. I emailed a selection of photos to Sue, and she wrote back immediately “Go to the head of the class. Yes indeed you have a Baltimore oriole at your feeder! I will report it to Rob Culbert, as this is still during count period of the Christmas Bird Count, and I don’t think anyone else spotted an oriole. Thanks so much.”

Wow. What great news, at least at first. Not only had I identified the bird correctly, a pleasant surprise, but also my bird could actually be counted, which sounded important. But then I started to wonder, if no one else had spotted an oriole, was this bird the only one?

I wrote back to Sue, “What are his chances for making it?” Her answer was not encouraging. “It will be tough for this bird to survive. I might try putting out a halved orange and maybe some jelly. They will need sugar. Not sure if the orange or jelly will survive the cold, but during the sunshine they may warm up enough so the bird can feed a bit.”

I immediately went out and bought some oranges. On a walk with my neighbor Debby Farber of Blackwater Farm, I told her about the bird. She went home and nailed an orange to a tree in her yard. I checked to see what an oriole’s typical diet is and learned they also eat nectar, along with caterpillars, insects, and spiders. This bird would not find much in the wild to sustain him right now.

What had happened? Did this lovely bird linger seduced by our warm November days? Was he reluctant to leave the charms of the Island, like so many of us? Had someone been feeding him fruit or suet, someone who now had gone back to the city or farther south himself for the winter? I’ll never know.

The orange half sat untouched on my feeder tray for days, but I kept replacing it in case my oriole returned. The water bowl was fresh, the feeder filled, and I tried not to tie my own winter survival anymore closely than I already had to his.

Coming home one evening last week, there was a post-it note attached to the computer, “Mom, Debbie called. The oriole is at her house now.” I was elated. It’s a short flight from my yard to hers. In just a few wing beats he could cross a field with a small pond, pass her barn and cow pasture and be in her cozy yard.

Debby and I exchange information daily about “our” oriole – when he’s been sighted, what he’s eating, and whether or not he seems cold. I often stop by her house hoping to see him. At the moment we’re keeping our fingers crossed and the oranges fresh. Hope is running pretty high.

Laura Wainwright, a freelance writer, lives in West Tisbury.