Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Black-vented Oriole

Yesterday’s weather surprised the forecast by providing a gorgeous afternoon; the typical T-shirt and shorts and “outdoor air conditioning” weather that makes this place the beloved winter home to many retirees from “up north”.   The decision was obvious:  an afternoon of walking and birding Bentsen State Park. 
No birder has high expectations of “good birding” at 2:00 in the afternoon.  Birds seem to “get” what the U.S. working class does not—quiet time after lunch as a regular habit, not to be denied by the business of work or play.  Of course birds are also akin to farmers; their work day tends to start with the rising of the sun.  Not an attribute of most software engineers.
But Bentsen is no ordinary park, and a walk through it, any time of day, is a birdy experience.  After so much focus on CoachHouse construction, I expected to gleefully blog about my close and prolonged encounter with two Song Sparrows, not to mention a beautiful look at a Gray Hawk, circling overhead.  

The Gray Hawk angled with each circle, showing off its black wing tips, slate-gray back and wings, and famous black-and-white barred tail.  I saw my first Gray Hawk last spring, when walking through the Cottonwood campground at Big Bend National Park.  A park ranger alerted me to sightings in that campground, a rarity for the area.  

Whether you are a beginning birder or experienced birder—or just thinking about birding, park rangers and volunteers are a wonderful source of information for seeking out both common and unusual sightings, and best locations for both.  Yesterday was my second sighting of this beautiful hawk.  Look it up in your favorite bird book or birding website and note its normal “range”, and you will see another great example of the extraordinary birding opportunities in the RGV.
The Song Sparrows of yesterday were not new “lifers” for me (the birding term for a new species on a birder’s list of lifetime sightings). But Songs are one of a “whole bunch” of sparrow species that are always ding-dang hard for me to identify.  Yesterday afternoon I stood for at least 15 minutes, getting detailed markings on those two beautiful Songs.  But my love/hate relationship with LBJs (little brown jobbers), as sparrows are often called, is another day’s blog.
Later in the afternoon I sat on a bench, by the Ebony tree area, not far from the “peanut butter” feeders and halved grapefruits.  The grapefruit halves are pierced through nails on trees, meat-side out, looking like orangey-pink pin wheels.  These famous “bird treats” of the park, resupplied daily by park volunteers (during the winter season) are a favorite of Altamira Orioles, Orange-crowned Warblers, and almost everything in between.  

The “bad behavior” fighting for control of these treats can provide a pleasant afternoon of entertainment.  I was watching a Great Kiskadee attempt to intimidate away a Golden-fronted Woodpecker; “pushing on it” with wing beats as the Golden-fronted gobbled down the peanut butter, perched precariously on the side of the feeder.  The Golden-fronted was not responding politely to the Kiskadee’s intimidation attempt.  You try taking a spoonful of peanut butter away from a toddler, and you’ll get the picture of the woodpecker’s reaction.   

So I sat, relaxed, happy and amused by the behavior in front of me, some thirty yards away; a wonderfully close range through binoculars. 
And then I saw it, the Black-vented Oriole.  Look it up in Sibley’s.  You won’t find it.  Go to the wonderful Cornell Lab of Ornithology “All About Birds” website and search their “Find” tab for “Black-vented Oriole”.    The response will be “returned no matching results.”  

The Black-vented Oriole is not supposed to be in North America.  Period.  And there I sat watching it as it perched atop some underbrush, in clear view beneath the Ebony trees.  The Black-vented seemed to be doing the same thing as I—quietly watching the squabble between the Kiskadee and the Golden-fronted; but it watched, not for entertainment (I assume), but to contemplate how to grab a turn at the peanut butter.  And so it did.
How did I know it was a Black-vented, if not found in my well-worn Sibley’s that stays tucked in my day-pack, along with water bottle and other necessities of a day in the field?  Let’s just say that the Black-vented, a rarity WAY out of range, has been the talk of the RGV, among birders and non-birders alike.   A Google search of “Black-vented Oriole Bentsen” will supply multiple links, where outstanding photographs of this year’s “darling of the RGV” can be found. 
Before the hard freeze that hit all of Texas, the Black-vented was seen (beginning in December), on “Coral Bean” trees in the vicinity around Bentsen State Park.  These beautiful small trees have lovely green winter foliage and vibrant red flowers.  One particular Coral Bean tree was beside a road in a neighboring RV park, and photographers were able to get amazing, close range shots of the Black-vented.  

You will find some of these photographs via the above suggested Google search.  But the freeze took the foliage and flowers of the Coral Bean trees, and the Black-vented adapted by focusing on the cover of the Ebony trees inside Bentsen, and the vibrant orange-pink pin wheels of the grapefruit and nearby peanut butter feeders.  Although any photograph of a Black-vented in the U.S. is an amazing “get”, the feeders of the Ebony grove do not provide the close range of the roadside Coral Bean tree. 
Rare bird sightings and the system called “Rare Bird Alerts” is a fascinating sub-specialty of the overall sport of birding.  Via Google, it is easy to find NARBA, the North American Rare Bird Alert website.  

This fascinating website is sponsored by the Houston Audubon Society, and the tab for “Texas Rare Bird Alerts” can be viewed without membership.  NARBA focuses on “review species” which are generally defined as birds that have been sighted (with some stiff documentation requirements) four or fewer times per year, anywhere in Texas over a ten-year average.  

The NARBA website lists current Texas review species.  In simple terms, they are called “review species” because an official Texas record review committee reviews the data and associated statistics to determine if a “review species” should be added to the official species list for Texas.  Total state species lists and the associated economic industry, not to mention habitat restoration and conservation, are BIG business—especially in Texas.  

The economics of nature tourism, especially birding tourism, would surprise many.  Birders from all over North America—and overseas, will come to Texas this season to “get” the Black-vented Oriole on their life list.
I probably fall into the category of “advanced beginner” when it comes to birding—especially in the RGV where many of the birding world’s best can be found.  I don’t fall into the sub-category of “rare bird alert chaser”.  Someday I may; but I have mixed emotions about rare bird sightings.  Just as I want to know why an electrician uses a wrench to “whack” nails rather than a hammer, I wonder why this Black-vented Oriole, or any bird species, is so far off its normal range.  

I could be a positive poet, and consider the Black-vented to be a Biblical Caleb, sent forward by its tribe as a scout, to seek out a land of milk and honey.  I would know, just as we know the story of Caleb, that the Black-vented would safely return to the habitat range of its tribe, and it would carry back news of pinwheel nectar and brown gooey treats, and fair weather and adoring fans of tall two-legged mammals, with large protruding eyes.  

Or I could be the systems engineer that builds the fault-tree analysis, pondering the likelihood of an error in the Oriole’s built-in GPS system that sent it so far off range; or failure in its wind-storm response system, blowing it so far off course.  Will this Black-vented die alone, away from the home of its tribe?  Or will it feast on grapefruit nectar and peanut protein and find its way back to future mates and offspring?
No, I don’t find the thrill in rare bird alerts--yet.  But yes, I expanded my Excel spreadsheet life list for a new row:  a new lifer.  I have seen the Black-vented Oriole in North America.  

I hope to always remember this sighting: the bad-boy infighting between Kiskadee and Golden-fronted; the patient, watchful perch of the Black-vented Oriole, and its pounce on the peanut butter feeder when suddenly available.  

The fact that even the Great Kiskadee let the Black-vented dine in peace, as if it knew that this was a rare guest; as if it knew that we should all give this rare visitor the best chance to go on its way, hopefully homeward bound, to breed a next generation of Black-vented Orioles that might call the RGV their winter home.

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