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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Another Unusual Visitor to NYC

Back in early December, a friend of mine spotted, what was thought to be a young Orchard Oriole in Union Square Park in Manhattan. Baltimore Orioles around NYC during the winter are unusual, but not unprecedented. Regarding late Orchard Orioles, however, "Bull's Birds of New York State" states, "Unlike its cogener, the Baltimore Oriole, this species has never been recorded in NY between Oct and mid-April." Had the person been aware of that fact, and taken into consideration 2007's extraordinary list of extralimital species of birds that showed up around New York State, it might have warranted a closer look at the bird.

For over a month, Union Square's brightly colored visitor went largely unnoticed by New York City birders. On January 24th, someone went looking for the bird and correctly identified it as a Scott's Oriole. It is the first time that this southwestern bird has been recorded in New York State. As soon as the information hit the Internet, droves of people began heading to Broadway and 14th Street. Union Square Park is not so much a park as it is a plaza with statues, some patches of grass and trees. The hungry oriole, for whatever reason, passed up Central Park's 843 acres (or any of the other large expanses of nature in NYC) and came to rest in a park that is not known for its natural surrounding, but rather political rallies, demonstrations, greenmarkets and an equestrian statue of George Washington.

This past Sunday I rode the "R" train from Brooklyn to Union Square hoping to get a look at the oriole. The directions that were posted on the Internet to the Scott's Oriole's preferred habitat were pretty simple. It's about 20 yards from the subway entrance, in the small garden behind the Mahatma Gandhi statue. It was one of the most unusual directions to a rare bird that I've ever read.

There is a holly tree in that area that a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has been using as a food source. The Scott's Oriole discovered the dripping sap and has been seen regularly feeding at the holes. He also feeds on scrapes of bread, fruit and other "city bird" junk food.

There were about a dozen people present when I arrived, so it wasn't hard to figure out where the bird was frequenting. The first person I approached said that it hadn't been seen in the expected location for about 30 minutes, so I strolled around the 3 acre park looking in other spots. Like most open spaces around Manhattan, the wildlife in the park is a very short list; Rock Pigeon, European Starling, House Sparrow and Eastern Gray Squirrel. There is also a small dog run, if you want to add domestic dog to the mix.

I looped around the park's interior foot path and the north end's greenmarket then headed back to the Gandhi statue. While I was waiting for the oriole with a group of other birders, Ed Coyle yelled to us, "It's over here". He was standing about 50 yards east of us and was pointing up at a bare cherry tree next to the statue of George Washington on his steed. In retrospect, it seems kind of silly, but I actually ran to where Ed was aiming his camera. The oriole stood out like a lighthouse on a stormy night. You couldn't miss it as it perched only about 10 feet up and right next to the sidewalk.

I watched it for about 1 hour during which time it moved back and forth between a dirt strip at the south end of the dog run and, what I now know, is officially named the "Gandhi Gardens". At one point, the aggressive little bird attacked a starling that came too close to his piece of bread. Shane told me that while he was watching the oriole, it was drinking from the sapsucker's tap holes when the sapsucker returned to feed. The Scott's Oriole proceeded to chase the small woodpecker to the ground where it gave it a sound thrashing. Now there's gratitude for you, beating up the provider of his sweet drinks.

I've been wondering why he chose that particular patch of plants in Union Square Park. It might be because it is the only spot in the park with any diversity of fruiting plants. There are some low wildflowers and grasses bordering the garden, but much of the ground has been worn down to the soil by the local wildlife. Dominating the larger plants is a young pine, a single American Holly tree and a grouping of berry-less winterberry shrubs. Either the winterberries are all male plants, or the birds have already eaten all the bright red fruits.

Yesterday I was at a meeting on lower Broadway. When I left the meeting at a little past 2:00PM, the rain had stopped and there was a blinding, winter sun in the sky. I decided to stop by Union Square for another look at the Scott's Oriole. The wind had really picked up since I left my home in the morning and it felt a lot colder than I anticipated. It made me think about the weather conditions this oriole should be experiencing 1500+ miles west, where he hatched last year. Hopefully, he'll realize that he's on the wrong side of the continent and eventually fly back.

When I arrived the oriole was perched out of the wind in one of the winterberry shrubs near the sidewalk on the west side of the garden. I didn't have my binoculars, but he was so close that it didn't matter. I had my little point-and-shoot Canon camera with me and decided to use it to shoot some video. At around 3PM he flew to a shrub that was only 8 feet away from me. He hopped down to a low branch, then on to the ground where he began picking at the remains of a discarded banana. The floor of the garden is about 3 feet higher than the sidewalk. A stone retaining wall is topped with a low, wrought iron fence. The Scott's Oriole was about 6 feet away from the fence. There were several birders standing behind me and, since I'm tall and didn't want to block their view, I knelt down on the sidewalk where I had an eye level view of the bird.

His feathers and the silver base of his bill gleamed in the intense, winter sunshine. As I watched the bird from the southwest feeding on pieces of a tropical fruit it felt like the wind subsided and the blustery afternoon momentarily warmed up. I walked the short distance to the subway entrance and went back to Brooklyn.

A big "Thank You" to Steve Garza and Ed Coyle for the use of their photos
by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"


Pamela said...

wonderful story. I had no idea Orioles were so aggressive. (Bullocks Orioles seen in our valley)

A local birder had an Annas Hummingbird in December and January at her feeder. First recorded winter visit in 43 years. We don't see them here usually even in the warm months.

The weather turned frigid (10 degrees and snow) ... I haven't heard if the bird is still around.

ks said...

Is the Scott's Oriole still in Union Sq.? We were there on Feb. 14 and couldn't find it. (Sure hope it was able to survive our recent snow and freezing weather.)

Rob Jett said...

Unfortunately, nobody has reported seeing the oriole for several days. I hope he just regained his bearings and headed back to Texas.

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