At exactly 2:19 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, while helping Inspector Maigret solve a mystery; I glanced up from my reading and watched as two birds flew in for a drink of water. Their arrival prompted me to abandon the fictional mystery, and the body at the hotel Majestic, for a real mystery of my own. What species is that bird?
One bird perched on the edge of the birdbath, the other below the lip of the bath, on the backside and out of sight. The one drinking was a Black-headed Grosbeak. It was the other bird that was the mystery. It was smaller than the Grosbeak, and its head, barely exposed over the top of the bath, was all black. When the Grosbeak finished drinking the mystery bird popped up. My heart started racing. I reached for my camera dropping my book to the floor in the process.
It wasn’t a Grosbeak, at least not like one I’d ever seen. It had a black bib and a dark crimson breast. The dark crimson extended all the way down. I started taking pictures and shouted for Gail to join me. The Grosbeak and the tag-a-long mystery bird left before she arrived. We scanned the yard, but didn’t see it and so returned to look at the pictures I’d taken.
There is always a moment, if you have a camera nearby, when you see an unusual bird where you debate, whether to take a picture or just get a better look through your binoculars. The bird was gone, but I had pictures. When I started checking them, I discovered, to my dismay, that they were out of focus. They were fuzzy overall, and the bill was distorted. The bill is almost always an important field mark. Damn! I checked my field guide. It looked most like an Orchard Oriole but when I checked the range maps there seemed to be no way that could be right, even the migration paths didn’t pass this way. But birds do have wings.
It was 2:42 p.m. when I posted the first blurry picture. “Out the window and out of focus, ” I wrote, “ I have my thoughts but would appreciate yours.”
It wasn’t long before the birding community started responding, at 3:06 p.m. Eric wrote, “Looks like a male Baltimore oriole to me. Party at Norm’s house to see the oriole.”
Like gambling, birding is addictive. The element of chance combined with intermittent rewards keeps you hooked. One more roll of the dice, one more spin of the wheel, and you may be a winner. In birding, it’s five more minutes, another 100 yards up the trail and you may get a once in a lifetime bird. An Orchard Oriole is a common bird, but not in Utah, in Utah it is what is referred to as an accidental. It is unexpected and out of its normal range.
I got an e-mail from Jeff, asking me to give him a call. I did; he was excited. He assured me my blurry bird was an Orchard Oriole having seen one the week before in Chicago. Really, do they have blurry orioles with distorted bills in Chicago too, I wondered. He asked if he could come over. I said sure. I gave him my address and directions. He was walking up the driveway as I replaced the phone in the cradle. We had just begun our search for the bird when Stephanie arrived. I didn’t know how she knew where I lived. It turns out, she looked me up in the white pages, pretty old school, but effective.
Meanwhile, the e-mails continued to arrive, at 4:26 Bryant wrote:
“I’d go with a male ORCHARD ORIOLE! over a Baltimore, which is even more rare, one accepted state record. Where exactly was this bird?”
We exchanged a couple of quick emails.
“My backyard,” I wrote.
“Your address, he pleaded.
I don’t get off until six,” he said, “keep it there.”
Another email from another birder:
“So what’s the verdict, Baltimore or Orchard? Have you seen it since? What’s your guest room situation?”
I posted another out of focus picture, this one a side view.
And more responses came in, “That is definitely an Orchard Oriole. No doubt,” Matt wrote.
Meanwhile, Jeff and Stephanie were scanning the trees in my backyard
“I’ve got it,” she said.
They were both doing squats, trying to get a good angle to see the bird flittering in the tops of the trees. The bird was active and they were having difficulty in keeping on him. He was a major league skulker. “Look over the top of the feeder and a little to the right,” she said. They were both on it now, and doing their best to get a picture, more entries in the “Big Foot Gallery,” 2 it turned out.
We watched as it moved about in the tops of the trees and then it flew, Jeff rolled over on his back and slithered across the lawn all the time keeping his hands tightly wound around his binoculars and trained on the bird. It landed at the top of an elm in the yard to the east. We began scanning again. “I saw it go in and I haven’t seen it fly out.,” Jeff said.
In the meantime the twitchers 3 and other bird lovers were frantically gathering their gear and heading for my house. The subject line of the e-mails had changed to, “Orchard Oriole – Yes.”
Jeff continued to keep the community informed. “Just had it with Norm and Stephanie," he wrote. “Good looks. Awesome bird. Flew away but trying to relocate. Shyloh just got here too.”
Jeff is an excellent birder, he’s quick at locating and locking on a bird. He was doing his best to describe exactly where the bird was, seventy-five feet above our heads in a wind-blown elm. Shyloh finally got on the bird a piece at a time, the head, a wing, a tail, and then the whole bird. And now four of us had seen the bird.
Tim arrived a few minutes later. He lives only a few blocks away and knew where I lived. We weren’t sure exactly where the bird was when he arrived, we hadn’t seen it for about 20 minutes, but we hadn’t seen it fly either. Tim is a great birder by ear and heard the bird’s intermittent two note call near the very top of the elm which led to a few more fleeting glimpses, or as Shyloh put it a few more crappy looks.
Describing where in a tree a bird is located is hard, and the larger the tree, the more difficult it is. If you haven’t seen the bird, it can be maddening listening to descriptions that make sense to everyone but you. “See those two branches, no not those, the ones on the left side near the top, “ someone will say. Then just as you begin looking in the spot you believe they are talking about the bird will fly a few feet to the left or right or up or down, and the process begins again. You worry that you are going to miss the bird that everyone else has seen, and so you keep looking and asking for help until you finally get on the bird.
We were all in the southeast corner of my yard lined up along the fence, binoculars fixed to our eyes looking straight up. The neighbor in the yard to the south came out on her deck. “What are you looking at,” she said. She sounded disappointed when we said birds, a rare bird. Jeff later remarked” too bad she doesn’t know what we know.?
Tim and Jeff looking straight up maybe 75–100 feet were taking beautiful pictures of leaves fluttering in the breeze and bits and pieces of an Orchard Oriole, a head here, a tail there, a wing, and then again nothing but leaves. The bird flew again.
We continued to scan the trees, as the Sommerfields arrived, and soon the Beyers and Pomera arrived We hadn’t seen the bird for a while and so we exchanged stories of other rare birds that had visited Utah. Speculation that Steve’s lack of a cigar was the reason the bird was gone, was the working theory, or maybe it was enough that somebody named Sommerfield was there and so no bird.
More birders arrived, Doug and Ned arrived from Utah county and Bryant, his two hour wait until he could leave work having passed, a very long two hours. At seven Matt and Josh arrived, the bird had been missing for an hour now. Some had left, and others were beginning to get antsy.
While we watched and waited, Doug told me about his trip to Magee Marsh, Ohio and the guide he had, and how an Orchard Oriole was one of his target birds, a target he missed. “Wouldn’t it be ironic,” he said “if I got it in Utah.| A little later he said that he and Ned should be leaving but if the bird was relocated I should call immediately and they would return. I promised I would. Three minutes later I happily dialed his number.
It was Steve who saw the bird fly back into the same tall elm it had been in earlier, proving that the Sommerfields and Steve’s lack of a cigar had nothing to do with the missing bird. And so the excitement began anew with descriptions of where the bird was now. The birders, once again with craned necks, searched the top of the elm. We eventually got some good looks at the bird, and even pictures that were in focus. All those who visited on Saturday saw the bird. It was a life bird for most and a new Utah bird for all but one or two. It was special for all and for one birder also a significant milestone, her 400th Utah bird.
On Sunday, a few stragglers came over on the off chance that the bird would still be in my yard. They would be disappointed that they missed it, but that is the nature of the game; birds have wings, and they use them. This migrant off base, off track and unexpected was appreciated by all who had the pleasure of seeing him. We wish him well.
An email arrived from David late on Sunday:
“Hey there, guys! Man, I just looked at my e-mail after several days and saw that you guys had an awesome yard bird. How do you do it? Please, please, if you see it again, give me a call.
I had planned on going birding Saturday, but slept in, and so missed the Gray Vireo I might have seen on Soldier Pass Road. I slept in and so missed the birds I might have seen elsewhere. But birders will tell you that we never stop birding even when we are at home enjoying a good book and only occasionally glancing out the window. And birders know that fortune shines on those, the lazy, the lucky, the diligent, and the dedicated, who keep their eyes and ears open, and tuned-in to the sight and sound of the birds we love. It’s several days later now and I just looked out the window, the one where I first saw the Orchard Oriole, half expecting to see him again. Seeing an Orchard Oriole in my own backyard was outstanding, a happy accident.