Mystery Bird: Orchard Oriole, Icterus spurius

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[Mystery bird] Orchard Oriole, Icterus spurius, photographed at Sabine Woods and Sabine Pass area, Texas. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]
Image: Joseph Kennedy, 28 April 2008 [larger view].
Nikon D200, Kowa 883 telescope TSN-PZ camera eyepiece 1/1000s f/8.0 at 1000.0mm iso400.

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:
Like many North American birders, I grew up where “the oriole problem” was a trivial one: it really isn’t that hard to distinguish the tiny, slender, yellowish Orchard Oriole from the hulking, warm-toned Baltimore. But now I live in the southwest, and now I bird in the tropics off and on, and I’ve come to respect female and female-plumaged orioles as a challenge sometimes on a par with, oh, golden-plovers.
But wait: why is this an oriole rather than a bunting or a tanager or a warbler or a vireo or any other of those yellowish passerines that flood the treetops of east Texas in late April? The tail is too long and the bird too slender for a bunting, tanager, or vireo, or even for most warblers, and though the bird is clearly not huge, its girth is equivalent to a significant factor of the diameter of the branchlet it’s perched on. But the face is the real giveaway: this is a beady-eyed, sharp-billed, mean-looking bird, quite unlike the blank charm of a bunting, the wide-eyed appearance of a tanager or vireo, or the busy cuteness of so many warblers. The stout, spike-like bill and the strong, thick tarsi and toes reveal this bird’s membership among the icterids, which include not just the American orioles but the New World blackbirds, meadowlarks, and Bobolink.
The extremely worn tail feathers of this late-April mystery bird are a feature we’d expect to see on a first-year bird, that is to say, a bird hatched the summer before. The orioles of temperate lands are “two-year passerines,” meaning that young males have a plumage distinct from that of their fathers, typically a female-like body plumage with some subdued black on the head portending their full adult glory to come.
“Teenage” Orchard Orioles like this one are readily identified in the heart of their eastern range by their yellow plumage and clear black masks. In their southwestern range, however, these birds and female-plumaged individuals can be devilishly difficult to distinguish from Hooded Oriole, which shares this species’ yellowish feathers, slender bill, and small size. There are slight differences in wing pattern and in the length of tail and wingtip, but all in all, distinguishing yellow Orchard Orioles from Hooded Orioles is a great and underestimated challenge.
Sharp-eyed observers of this photo will have noticed the little spots of chestnut coloration on the breast of this bird, closely recalling the brick red of an adult male Orchard Oriole. But this just isn’t how birds molt. Note that there is a splotch of the same color on the bird’s lower mandible; he’s obviously been enjoying some juicy red fruit.
The photographer, Joseph Kennedy, writes;
I have to put on another hat to talk about differentiating a bird as separate from identifying it while I took pictures. At that time this orchard oriole was with other orchard orioles and communicating a lot. The group was chasing each other and doing a lot of calling. So one did not really have to look at the bird to identify it while taking pictures. However, that is not always true as I have gotten home and looked at pictures and discovered that the bird I photographed rapidly changed places with another species just when I clicked the shutter. Dowitchers do this a lot as do some of the seagulls.
Starting from scratch I would say that this is a young male orchard oriole and possibly even two years old if I remember my banding information. Some of the orchard oriole males do not get all of their chestnut feathers until they come north the second time. This bird is starting to get some of its chestnut feathers on the shoulders and center of the breast. It is yellow below instead of orangy as in the case of a baltimore oriole. The baltimore oriole would have a hooded look even if it was one of the wierd looking females that have black on the head. A female baltimore not molting would have whitish back under the tail.
Theoretically, the hooded oriole does not occur on the UTC so can be ignored but there have been stray records so one has to say why it is not a hooded oriole. They are longer and skinnier birds and the tail should be tapered, not blunt and cut across like this bird. They longer part of the hooded oriole carries over to the tail but it is hard to judge here but the shape would say not a hooded. I can never tell anything by looking at bills. The face pattern of the hooded that I saw in the RGV this spring did not have the v-shaped wedge in the black pattern below the eye and I think that this is consistent. The black in the hooded oriole would form a straight vertical line in comparison. That straight black mark is a key one to differentiate the hooded from the altmira oriole which is why I remember it.
Habitat is important too. The baltimore and hooded orioles are tree birds to me while the orchard is a scrub bird that even gets down in ground cover. Again the picture does not help and the tree (mulberry?) would attract any oriole.
Hope that this helps.
Review all mystery birds to date.


About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to Mystery Bird: Orchard Oriole, Icterus spurius

  1. I’m going to call this a male Hooded Oriole, probably a first-summer bird. I’m going that way, rather than a first-year Orchard male, mainly on the basis of the beak. (I’m apparently all about the beaks lately.) This bird’s beak seems longer and more curved, like the Sibley illustration of the Hooded Oriole, rather than shorter and straighter, like Sibley’s Orchard Oriole.

  2. Rats. In hindsight, should have paid more attention to the chunky body and short tail.

  3. chuck says:

    The greenish yellow body plumage and black throat could be either first-year Hooded or Baltimore. The exact color of the undersides is hard to ascertain in this photo. The traces of orange on the upper breast however would appear to eliminate Orchard Oriole as it does not have orange anywhere in its plumage. None of the other orioles display a greenish yellow body as first year birds and then molt into orange during their spring molt. My guess is that it is a first winter Hooded Oriole starting to molt into its second summer plumage.

  4. Delores Jenisch says:

    Yea! I was right! But, it doesn’t count because I didn’t post a comment before the answer was given.