Wild Side: Orioles secret journey

A transient bird finds Island refuge from a storm.

A migratory Baltimore oriole stops to refuel on cedar berries. — Matt Pelikan

The desk in my home office faces out a window on the back of our house, affording a clear view of a row of eastern red cedars along the back of our small yard. These evergreens provide me with seasonally changing entertainment: various species of birds singing, nesting, feeding, or basking, depending on the date and the conditions.

So I wasn’t too surprised when I looked outside around midday on Oct. 26, during the early stages of that nasty storm that clobbered the Island that night and the next day, to spot a patch of brilliant orange. A Baltimore oriole had flown in, settled on the end of a branch, and begun feeding on the blue, pruinose berries (technically, they’re cones) of the cedar.

A common nesting bird on Martha’s Vineyard, this beautiful species arrives quite punctually most years in early May or, occasionally, in the last days of April, going from absent to plentiful literally overnight. Raising their young in pendulous nests high up in shade trees, Baltimore orioles are a prominent part of our summertime bird life. Adults seem to head south mostly in late August and early September, followed shortly by young of the year. From that point, orioles we see here are mostly transients.

Though this species is strongly migratory in general, wintering mostly in Central and Northern South America, the West Indies, and the deep Southeastern United States, a few individuals have always lingered into the winter at northern latitudes. The frequency of this happening seems to be increasing, likely a response of the species to climate change. 

I have no idea why some small percentage of a migratory species would do this. Perhaps it’s just because they can: orioles are mostly insectivorous when conditions allow, but the versatile innards of a Baltimore oriole seem perfectly capable of processing a diet of fruit or even seed. Given a mild winter and a reliable food supply, skipping migration to winter in the north may prove a good gamble for an oriole, posing risks but also saving a lot of time and mileage. In any case, these days, a late October oriole is no more than mildly unusual on the Vineyard.

It is true, though, that most such late-season birds are immatures, with dull, female-like plumage. My bird was a full adult male, in crisp, fresh plumage. The black feathers on the bird’s back were edged with orange — coloration that will have worn away by next spring. Adults of this species undergo a complete molt after the breeding season. But since they are rather secretive in late summer and then leave on migration, and since most late autumn birds are immatures, I rarely get good looks at freshly molted adult orioles. 

Sliding up a window, I stuck the snout of my telephoto lens out and began photographing my colorful visitor. Either the sound of the window opening or the sound of the camera shutter tipped the bird off that he was being watched. But, fixing a glossy black eye on me, the oriole decided that I was no threat, or at least that refueling took priority over worrying about an observer. He continued to pluck and swallow cedar berries.

My oriole was visible in the cedars throughout the afternoon, disappearing for a few minutes from time to time, presumably to digest a load of cedar fruits, then returning to his prolonged meal. The evident hunger of this bird suggested that a long journey preceded his appearance in our yard. With the building storm already spinning counter-clockwise along the mid-Atlantic coast, it seems likely he had already migrated well south of us before being caught in the circulation of the low-pressure area, swung out over the ocean, and dumped on the Vineyard after many hours in the air.

Sensibly, this bird and all our other birds stayed hidden in some sheltered spot while the storm blew on Oct. 27. But the next day, as I sat down to write this column, I looked up and noticed my friend, back in the cedars, grabbing a few berries. He lingered only a few moments, then flew off to parts unknown. Perhaps he’s found other, more palatable resources in the area. Or perhaps he took advantage of the north winds persisting in the storm’s wake to resume an interrupted journey south.

I doubt I’ll see him again, but I wish him well and am glad that our cedars provided a helpful food source at a difficult time. This is how it goes with avian migrants: your life and theirs intersect for a few seconds, minutes, or hours, and then your courses diverge. They take with them, when they go, their secrets about where they’ve been, what they’ve seen, and where they’re headed, leaving us with nothing more than questions and the memory of a flash of color on a dismal day.