Back in Black

The tendency of birds to wander and turn up in unusual places is a well-known phenomenon. Even so, there are some truly puzzling cases which strain the limits of credulity. Enter the Black-backed Oriole, a species endemic to central Mexico. A close relative of Bullock’s and Baltimore Orioles, this bird is poorly-known outside its home range, and its short distance migration is largely altitude-based. Orioles in general, however, have a propensity to stray, often appearing on the wrong side of the continent at strange times of year. All the same, I was dumbfounded when a February 3rd ABA Rare Bird Alert came in reporting that a foreign species I’d never heard of was visiting a feeder in eastern Pennsylvania.

Naturally, there are many questions about how this creature arrived at a suburban backyard over 1,500 miles from its established haunts. The broad array of possibilities can be divided into two simple categories: natural vagrancy and escape from captivity. The birding community ignited with knowledgeable individuals laying out arguments for both sides.

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?

On the one hand, colorful songbirds like orioles are popular pets south of the border. Database searches of all North American zoos revealed that the Black-backed Oriole is totally absent as a registered specimen, but there is always a chance that one was smuggled illegally into the country. The last and only time this species was reported in the States was in San Diego from 2000 to 2002, and the records committee eventually decided that it couldn’t be ruled out as a potential escapee from the bird markets in nearby Tijuana. Young birds are somewhat more prone to traveling, and the Pennsylvania oriole is an adult male. Others have posited that the lack of prior records and the small-scale migratory patterns for Black-backs are strikes against the chance of natural origin.

Conversely, there is some tantalizing evidence that could support the more spectacular possibility. Cagebirds typically lose their luster rather quickly. Colors fade and feathers fray due to the wear and tear of inhabiting an itty-bitty living space. Experts pointed out that captive orioles, in particular, often develop lumpy, knobby growths on their legs and feet due to dietary issues. Furthermore, most birds in human possession are outfitted with ID bands. This stunning individual is remarkably pristine and unmarked by the signs of hard time. The extent of illegal cagebird trading in the US is hard to gauge, but it is certainly less common than many other countries. Some have brought up that there are a handful of records for the species outside the lines on the range map in Mexico, and other strays may have been missed. After all, orioles do roam, and the other age and sex classes of Black-backed are remarkably similar to Bullock’s. It is entirely possible that prior records slipped through the cracks, unnoticed or misidentified, until this blazingly bright male refused to be ignored. Stranger things have happened.

I personally felt that the bird could absolutely be legitimate, and I subscribe to the “better safe than sorry” approach with mega-rarities that would take the records committee some time sort out. Still, I wasn’t feeling up for another multi-hour drive the weekend after the bird was reported, so I stayed home for the Super Bowl. I made a deal with myself that if the oriole stuck around I would make the trip out to Sinking Spring the following Saturday. It was a busy, fun week, highlighted by opportunities to catch up with Brendan and other old Cornell friends Ben, Luke, and Ian. The Black-back continued to delight observers from all over the country day after day, while the only addition to my year list was Red-winged Blackbird. Still, the news was good all the way to Friday, and Saturday morning found me up before dawn. A few hours later, I was looking at a bird whose species was unknown to me until a week prior.

My time at the stakeout certainly made for a memorable encounter. The bird made regular visits to the backyard feeders, watched intently by dozens of birders gathered across the street. Observing this oriole was an event made possible by the hospitality of the locals. Since the Black-back proved to be rather shy, the Binders had opened up their driveway opposite the Hybki household so no one would disturb the bird while it feasted on peanuts, oranges, and grapes. It was a strange scene to find in this sleepy neighborhood, but the focal subject itself was a total stunner. Regardless of where it came from, there was no mistaking the identity of this wayward wanderer. Bold white wing patches and intense orange coloration on the tail and underparts offset the deep, glossy black of the flanks and back. Watching the bright bird explore the yard and bask in the sun was a real treat.

The neighborhood community and the birding community have come together admirably to make this experience a positive one for all involved. The Binders have kept a registry and map to keep track of visitors from far and wide. Code 5 Design, a team devoted to celebrating records of rarities, provided the hosts with shirts emblazoned with the image of a Black-backed Oriole. I saw a number of familiar faces in the crowd, including Jay, Sarah D, and Tom. The songs of Carolina Chickadees reminded me that I could probably pick up some regional specialties on my way back to Long Island. After speaking to some of the locals, I gathered some intel about where to look for birds in the area before heading home. Tom agreed to team up with me in my search, since he was traveling in roughly the same direction. We caught one last glimpse of the oriole passing overhead as we headed out, leaving the scene with the smiles of success on our faces.

A small detour brought us to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, a locale renowned for its waterfowl concentrations. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the loud, bugling calls of Tundra Swans. There were hundreds of these large, white birds floating on the surface of the icy water, a far cry from my encounter earlier this year and closer to home.

While the flocks of swans were impressive, they were greatly outnumbered by the congregations of Snow Geese assembled across the reservoir. Birds continually floated down out of the sky to join the horde, which easily contained 10,000 individuals. The extensive snowy field of birds was impressive, but a distant adult Bald Eagle flying by sent the geese into a truly spectacular frenzy.

I haven’t seen Snow Geese in these kind of numbers for several years, and it never fails to amaze. The pictures speak for themselves. Yowzah.

The next and final stop on my tour of Pennsylvania was some distance away, the Grand Central Landfill in Northampton County. Tom recommended this spot due to whispers of rare gulls among the throngs gorging on trash. Several Thayer’s Gulls and a rumored Slaty-backed Gull, would-be lifers both, had been reported recently, but finding them was no easy task. When we arrived at the cemetery next door, there were a number of gulls resting on a hilltop. Briefly glimpses of birds in flight told us that many more were foraging out of sight behind a rise, where an unseen vehicle was turning over garbage. Hundreds of starlings, dozens of crows, and a handful of Black and Turkey Vultures were also getting in on the fun.

There was minimal turnover between the sitting and feeding flocks, but Tom eventually spotted the white wings of a young Iceland Gull coming down to land with the roosting flock. At one point, the entire assemblage took flight and wheeled high overhead, revealing an additional adult. We swept carefully through the Herrings, Ring-bills, and Lesser Black-backs, but the Icelands and a pair of Great Black-backs were the only other species we could put a name to. Most of the birds continued on out of sight, and I thanked Tom for the company as I packed my gear and departed from the dump.

I made it to New York and through the Bronx without too much trouble, bringing a close to another successful day on the road. Time will tell if the unexpected, unbelievable Black-backed Oriole joins the ranks of accepted avian records to become a proper Code 5 species, but I certainly enjoyed my journey regardless of numbers on checklists. The surprising discovery of this striking bird served as a reminder that almost anything can happen and you never know what you might find. Win, lose, or draw…birding is awesome.

skyline

Year List Update, February 11 – 135 Species (+ Red-winged Blackbird, Black-backed Oriole, Carolina Chickadee, Bald Eagle, Iceland Gull)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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One Response to Back in Black

  1. Carlton says:

    Absolutely fantastic capture of the experience!

    Like

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