With fall migration well on it’s way, I can’t help but reflect on an experience I had nearly two years ago. I’m not sure if I’ve ever shared this part of the story in detail, but it was such a life changing time I feel I must. Plus, you never know, it could happen to you.
On December 8th of 2007, I was amazingly fortunate to have a rare bird show up at my feeders. Fortunate? Well some of you might not think so after reading this. But it’s true!
The bird was a Streak-backed Oriole that had never been recorded in the state of Colorado before, and was miles away from it’s home territory – wandering north in the winter no less – about a hundred miles south of the border on the Pacific side of Mexico. Because of this any serious birder or “lister” in Colorado would want to try and see this strange visitor.The Streak-backed Oriole has a history of winter vagrancy. Arizona has over half a dozen records including documentation of nesting in the southern portion of the state. The first record from northern Arizona was documented at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on 22 January 1998 (Rosenberg 2001). California also has several records (Hamilton et al. 2007). Oregon has one record of a male bird from 28 September to 1 October 1993 (Oregon Bird Records Committee 2006). The species has occurred twice in New Mexico, in December 2000 and December 2003 (NMOS 2007, database records 60867, 66007). Texas had one at Brazos Bend State Park, Fort Bend from 12 Dec 2004 to 8 April 2005 (Lockwood 2005). An immature male bird appeared at the feeders of Mike Stevens in Mercer, WI in early January 1998 and was apparently present for two weeks before succumbing to the cold temperatures (Schultz 1999). It appears that our Streak-backed Oriole visit in December 2007 fits in with the established patterns this species shows of winter wanderings.
Apparently this bird was an extreme adventurer, winding up in my yard in deep winter. Feeding birds and creating backyard habitat has always been a hobby of mine. In 2005 when we were house hunting in Loveland, having the framework of large trees was a must have for me. I new I’d be downsizing from 3.5 acres to about a half an acre but I still wanted good habitat. My yard has 5 large evergreen trees consisting of Blue Spruce and Rocky Mountain Juniper, in addition to nearly a dozen Aspen, several mature Russian Olive, (yes I know, not desirable now, but they’re here), a couple of mature Ash trees and one gigantic, lovely Plains Cottonwood. In addition, since I’ve moved here I have added many native, fruit bearing bushes, more juniper and aspen trees, and tons of native grasses and perennials. I also keep a small bird pond with a mini waterfall and open water all winter.
I suppose I’ll need to confess about my bird feeding habit here too. I maintain a feeding station year round. In the winter, I usually have about a half a dozen open tray or log feeders at different heights and different distances from cover throughout the yard. I also have 2-3 suet feeders hanging from the trees. Then of course there are the Niger tube feeders for the goldfinches and siskins, usually 2, and a couple of caged tube feeders with mixed seed for the chickadees and such. Once the grackles are gone I switch from a blend of black oil sunflower from my work place Wild Birds Unlimited (Ft. Collins, CO.) to specialty blends we carry called Winter Blend and Autumn Harvest No-Mess. Both of these seed blends have dried fruit, lots of tree nuts and peanuts and hulled sunflower and millet. This was the food buffet that was spread when the oriole showed up in my yard on that snowy day. The second day of her visit I put out live mealworms and suet pellets, brought home from work along with fresh oranges and grape jelly. The mealworms and jelly were then her favorite foods with a sprinkling of suet pellets. She never touched the oranges.
As a serious bird watching enthusiast there was no question in my mind that I wanted to open my home for people to come see this bird, but how? I knew we would get a lot of visitors and told my husband so, but I had no real clue as to what was about to happen or how many people might actually come. I had had other birds of a smaller note, such as a Sage Sparrow visit my yard, which is rare in the county that I live in and after posting that sighting to our state bird list I hosted 17 people over several days to see it.
My initial email to our state list incorrectly identified the bird as a Bullock’s Oriole. I had only taken a brief glance at the bird, snapped two pictures in bad light and had to head off to work in a snowstorm. Once its identity had been corrected and confirmed, things began to get interesting.I sent an email to the Colorado Field Ornithologists email list serve COBirds that the oriole’s ID was confirmed and people were welcome to come see it. I did ask that they call or email so we could know who and how many to expect. The phone call part was a mistake as it took a tremendous amount of time to respond to the calls. I quickly retracted the telephone option and requested to be contacted by email only. Whew! Much easier. I could respond to the 10 to 20+ emails a day much more quickly with directions and instructions on how to view the bird.
We (my husband Al and I) made a snap decision (some might say I snapped!) to allow an “open house” viewing for the time being, which actually extended to nine full days. After the first day of viewing by 80 visitors and having our cul-de-sac and neighborhood streets filled with enough cars for a funeral, we notified our neighbors of what was going on so they wouldn’t worry and welcomed them too, to come and see our oriole. We asked that people come at 7:00 a.m. for the best chance of seeing the bird as she seemed to be up early seeking food after the cold night and fed steadily for the first several hours of the morning.
“Please be QUIET and approach the house slowly, come in through the garage to the kitchen and view the bird from the kitchen or living room, boots off, please.
Please do not wander around the yard, block driveways or bother the neighbors (who have been notified of what’s going on.) Visitors will be welcome as long as the bird is here.”
PLEASE COME INSIDE TO VIEW THE BIRD
BOOTS OFF PLEASE
SIGN THE GUEST BOOK, KEEP NOISE TO A MINIMUM
BEST VIEWING IS FROM THE KITCHEN, AT THE FEEDER UNDER THE SPRUCE TREEWe asked that they sign the guest book, hopefully they all did. We quickly realized we could not stay at home the whole time and allowed visitors to come see the bird even if we weren’t home. What? Were we out of our minds to let people whom we did not know come into our home when we weren’t there? Some would say so I guess, but it worked. I had met many, but certainly not all, of the birders in Colorado and even visited others homes in the state on occasion to see an unusual or out of range bird, and felt that people would appreciate and respect the opportunity to come and see this unusual oriole. Were we taking a chance on getting “cleaned out”? I don’t think so. People that inquired to see the bird were nothing but thankful and appreciative to have the opportunity to see the oriole, who for many was a life bird. There was usually a “visitor of the day” who wound up being the host for several hours and watching over things in our absence, but not always. The third day in, my husband Al had to leave to run some errands, and feeling a bit odd walking out on the crowd of strangers in the kitchen, let them know he was leaving, would be back soon, and finished with; “ don’t bother rifling through the drawers for cash, there isn’t any!”I had thought that we didn’t announce it to the “world”, but the word did get out far and fast through Birding On The Net and the North American Rare Bird Alert. The safeguards I felt we had were that people were coming and going constantly. They also had to contact me first and request to come see the bird and me reply with a yes invitation. I knew the day and approximate time every person was coming. However, we do know on one day in particular about a half dozen visitors came without requesting to and viewed the bird from the driveway which we had asked people not to do. That happened on a day that neither my husband nor I was home. No harm was done, other than the fact that this particular group did not respect our viewing wishes.
By the end of the first nine days we had welcomed 338 visitors to see our lovely “Pedro-Maria” as she had been nicknamed. That’s an average of about 40 people per day. Total bird craziness, but what a blast we had, and what great people we met.One great story that I heard from people is there was a man from out of state that was wheelchair bound. I knew he was coming on a day I had to work and had asked a couple of other visitors, by email communication, to assist this gentleman when he arrived. I later heard that he had to be carried in his chair into the kitchen and that it was no small feat to get that accomplished. But it was well worth it as he was able to see the oriole and was almost in tears as it was a life bird for him.
After the initial nine days we “closed” the open house and restructured the viewing times around specific people’s visits. We had many folks from out of state that could only come on a specific day. I would then post to COBirds that we were opening for a viewing on that day and had people contact me. I kept the numbers to about 20 for these visits and they would fill up quickly. I would also keep the time limited from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 a. m. From the 10th day until January 2nd, 2008 when she left, 154 more visitors saw the bird. About 30 or so of those were second-timers who wanted better looks or to add her to their 2008 year list. (You know who you are.)Would I do it again? You bet. Would I change anything? Not much. The system we created “on the fly” and worked the kinks out of as we went seemed to work for everybody. You may be wondering why I let folks in at all, why not just let them view from the street? The biggest reason was for the bird’s sake. I felt she would be much less disturbed by a houseful of people than by a driveway full of them, talking too loud, moving, taking pictures, right near where she wanted to feed. Also, the front of our property is narrow and at the small end of a cul-de-sac and it would have been difficult to accommodate people easily in a way for them to see the oriole without having folks all over the yard, which would then disturb the bird.
Something else I must mention. People were beyond appreciative. They were incredibly generous. Day after day, piles of seed, oranges, cash, suet, grape jelly, wine, bags of mealworms, cookies, and candy were left in our garage and on our kitchen counter as thank you gifts. We were speechless and amazed at this show of gratitude.
I would hope to encourage those of you who feel terrified at the prospect of sharing a very rare bird that’s taken up residence, however temporary, in your yard to give it a try if the opportunity comes your way. You can set the rules to fit your safety and comfort levels, and even have good friends help you by being at your home to host the viewers. I have made a lifetime of the most amazing friends because of a little bird that was hungry and cold and wound up at my feeders.