One of the blocks that I have claimed for the atlas is very convenient for me. My property and a good portion of my road are within the block, so I already had a lot of data to report about species just from my own back yard and neighborhood. That being said, however, I have been happily surprised to uncover breeding evidence (mostly in the form of fledged birds begging for food from their parents) for a good number of species in my neighborhood (and on my property) just within the last 10-12 days. A partial list of these species includes Eastern Towhee, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Blue-winged Warbler, Ovenbird (that one was 20 feet from my front door - just outrageous!), Wood Thrush, and this little bird:
Please forgive the picture quality - the camera on my iPod is not very good. But look how cute! I found 2 of these little buggers peeping at me from a ditch at the side of the road one evening. I was positively stumped as to what the species might be, though, and there was no parental unit around to tend to it at the time that I spotted it, nor when I checked in on it again the next morning. Seeing mom or dad feeding it sure would have helped me figure out what it was! After some online searches and consultation with a friend, the verdict is: Red-eyed Vireo fledgling. It was literally within seconds of finding this little one that a young Wood Thrush and one of its parents flew across the road and landed in a tree, giving me two breeding confirmations in less than a minute. SUCCESS!
It's funny what a difference a year can make. Last spring I considered joining the atlas effort, and even met with our regional director to learn more about it, but between being committed to classes for OCVN and general lack of knowledge, I just didn't feel comfortable trying to participate last year. Having made it a point to better educate myself about bird ID both by sight and by sound since last spring, I feel pretty good about what I can contribute to the atlas now. I will admit that I was still a little hesitant about the whole thing when I signed up, though. I thought to myself a number of times "how am I going to find breeding evidence for all these birds?" - and I still wonder that each time I go out, despite having had a number of successful outings. But the answer is much easier than I would have imagined. Just let nature show you, and it becomes simple. Allow your instincts to guide you. Watch the birds and really pay attention to their behavioral cues - they will tell you exactly what is going on in no uncertain terms.
Sometimes it's a matter of watching a bird sally back and forth over a field and then return to a spot over and over. I found an Eastern Kingbird nest this way. Sometimes it's a hunch of "maybe I should walk over this way," which gets rewarded with a scolding from a bird, which leads you to find its nest in a tree. That was how I found this Orchard Oriole nest.
Roughly 8 feet off the ground in a very young sycamore tree, I was delighted to have this nest within easy reach of my camera lens (the few oriole nests I've seen before this have been located 20+ feet up in very huge sycamores, sometimes hard to spot even with binoculars). The Cornell Lab's All About Birds website describes the Orchard Oriole's nest as "An open cup of woven grass, lined with fine grass, plant down, wool, and feathers, suspended from fork of tree branch far out on limb."
Given the small size of this sycamore, there weren't very many limbs to go far out on, so she chose instead to stick this pretty much next to the main trunk. What I love about this angle is that you can see all those strands of grass coming down from the top which help to actually suspend the nest (although it seems to be getting support from branches underneath it, too).
Male and female Orchard Oriole, left to right.
This male Orchard Oriole is one that can present an identification challenge for birders who are still learning IDs, myself included! Had this not been pointed out to me in West Virginia a few months ago, I would have been stumped for sure. Adult male Orchard's are normally a deep brick red color, but this fella is just a youngun. He's a first year male (meaning he was born last year), and he's also referred to as a "bearded" male due to the black coloring along his throat. Next year he will molt into his brick red plumage, his wings and tail will go black, and his entire head will be black, not just his throat. It will be interesting to see if an Orchard Oriole pair comes back to this same site next year. If I see a brick-colored male there next year, I can make an educated guess that it's this guy.
Here's the female. She's the first one of the pair who caught my attention by making scolding calls at me and thus giving away her nest. She can be differentiated from a Baltimore Oriole female by her yellow-olive coloring - lady Baltimores have a definitive orange cast to them. In this image I think her resemblance to some of her other Icterid cousins is very obvious, especially that long, pointy beak. I should mention, though, that the Orchard Oriole's size is diminutive compared to a Baltimore Oriole. I didn't notice this until they took flight, and had a seen them only in flight, I might have actually mistaken them for some type of warbler.
"Icterid" is the taxonomic classification for the blackbird family, which includes grackles, cowbirds, meadowlarks, blackbirds (think Red-winged and Yellow-headed), orioles and the bobolink. Interestingly, the orioles are the only birds in this family who seem to have a form of the word "icterid" in their latin name. Orchard Orioles are Icterus spurius, while Baltimore Orioles are Icterus galbula. The word icterus means "jaundiced" or "yellowed" in Latin, very appropriate for a lot of birds who are boldly colored in yellow and orange!
I would say that the drab yellow coloring of this female helps to keep her out of sight under the right circumstances. Here you can see how she easily blends in with the leaves around her.
It's camouflage like this that was part of my concern about being able to spot nests and birds when I signed on for doing the atlasing. But as I said, the birds really do tell you all you need to know. It does take patience and open eyes, but it is amazing what you can see when you really LOOK! I never imagined myself as being one of those birders who drives around slowly and stops frequently to hop out of the car to look around or get a better listen. And yet, here I am - surveying birds and learning, learning, learning all along the way. I wonder what people think when they drive past this "crazy lady" with her binoculars? Most of them slow down, smile and wave, but a few drive by at break-neck speed with little regard for the pedestrian at the side of the road. It is those folks who I most want to tell, to shout at the top of my lungs, "There's newly fledged birds right over there, begging to be fed! They are so cute, and so amazing! They will migrate hundreds, maybe thousands of miles to South America in a matter of months! Isn't that incredible?!" Mostly, I just want them to slow down and take time to smell the roses - and look at the birds.