I have received a lot of Baltimore oriole photos from readers’ feeders this winter. I never get tired of examining them because Baltimore orioles, except for adult males, exhibit great variation in plumage. It really seems like no two are exactly alike.
I also like to examine the photos because there is a chance, admittedly small, that the bird could be something very rare. But it does happen.
In 2015 I received an oriole photo that turned out to be the first North Carolina record for hooded oriole. Just recently I looked at a photo of an oriole that did not look right for Baltimore oriole, and after some field guide checking – digging out an old article in Birding from 1998 on field identification of immature orioles and showing it to some local birders – it was clear it was a very rare Bullock’s oriole.
The photo accompanying today’s column is that bird. Note how the back and belly are gray / whitish with no hint of yellow or orange. The brightest yellow is about the head and face. In a Baltimore oriole the orange and yellow would be more extensive on the bird and would be brightest on the upper breast. If you have sent me photos of Baltimore orioles, check yours. You should be able to see this feature.
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Other giveaway field marks for this bird include a dark line through the eye and a bit of a black patch on the chin. This is an immature male Bullock’s oriole.
The Bullock’s oriole is the western counterpart of the eastern Baltimore oriole. They are so closely related they once were considered to be one species, the Northern oriole. Hybrids of the two species are known but are extremely difficult to ID.
Unlike the hooded oriole from 2015, this beauty has stayed around for others to enjoy. The host estimates more than 50 birders have visited to see it, some driving from other areas of the state. There is only one previous record from Mecklenburg County that I know of, with some single records from some surrounding counties.
So you can see that it pays to scrutinize any orioles that patronize feeders. If you aren’t confident in your identification skills yet, you know where to send the photos.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.