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Birds
Great Scott(s) Oriole!
Move over Pale Male, there’s a new bird in town.

This male Scott’s oriole was the first documented sighting in New York State.

He might not have the same PR appeal as Pale Male—the red-tailed hawk that made headlines after its Central Park nest was dismantled, then replaced after much public outcry—but the plucky male Scott’s oriole recently discovered in Manhattan’s Union Square Park certainly knows how to draw a crowd.

A native to Mexico and the southwestern United States, this bird was about 2,500 hundred miles from home when he was first spotted in early December. Though initially mistaken for a different oriole cousin, his true identity was revealed in January, after a professional photographer and other avian experts weighed in, confirming that this marked the first official New York state sighting of the species.

Given that this oriole seemed a touch out of place, I asked acclaimed field guide author Kenn Kaufman, who has been keeping a long-distance tab on this bird, for his take. “Even though this is the first record ever of Scott's oriole in New York, there is a long history of southwestern/Mexican birds showing up far to the north and northeast of their normal ranges,” he said. ”You could say that these long-distance vagrant occurrences fit into a broader pattern, but at the local level, they provide wild excitement for birders!” 

Wasn’t that the truth. Word spread quickly through the local birding community and online birding listservs. Considering I work at Audubon as   the web communications manager and am a general nature nut, I was destined to soon catch a bad case of the “rare bird bug” as well.

 

Stalking Scott, Day 1

I first heard about the oriole’s appearance from my friend Heidi, Director of Production and Operations at Audubon Magazine. She forwarded me information on the sighting from a bird alert source, Metro Birding Briefs. My initial reaction was, Hmm, pretty cool, but I doubt it’s still there…and jeez, it’s awfully cold out…

The following week, I learned that another Audubon friend had seen him over the weekend, so I decided to catch a glimpse for myself. Brand new digital camera in hand, I headed off to Union Square, following the explicit directions from the online reports. Of course, I chose the windiest day in recent memory to seek him out. And because I’m notoriously bad at directions, I sat in the wrong area, taking a few sparrow shots, pretending I was on an important urban photography assignment. 

I eventually got up, walked around again, and noticed a group of people clustered in the corner (right where the directions said to go). As it turned out, most of the crowd consisted of fellow employees, some visiting from the Audubon NY office on other business.

That’s when I finally saw him: a juvenile Scott’s oriole casually flitting about the shrubbery—to the delight of everyone present. While he already stood out with his yellow-olive plumage, he drew even more attention when he treated us to a no-binoculars-needed show, hopping down to the ground about four feet away to peck on a discarded banana.

Does this angle make me look fat?

I was beyond excited, snapping my camera in pace with my racing heart. But when I rushed back to the office to look at the images (and get some blood flowing back into my frozen limbs), I discovered that I had put the camera on the wrong setting (despite having spent days reading the gargantuan owner’s manual). Luckily, I did manage to get a few decent shots:

Check out my maturing plumage.

 

Stalking Scott, Day 2

After a quick camera tutorial from Audubon’s photo editor, Kim Hubbard, I returned to Union Square Park the next day. This time, it was a “balmy” afternoon: low 40s, no wind, and steady sun. Armed with auto focus, I was first to spot the oriole (and waited the longest for it to appear as well). A few birders drifted by and left, but I decided that freezing in a park watching birds outweighed hunkering in front of a computer any day.

The oriole seemed a bit shyer today, lingering mostly among the leafier limbs, making it difficult to get a decent shot. But we were happy to see it was eating from a small piece of orange someone had hung on a branch. Eager to get a closer look, one of the more excited birders decided to run to Whole Foods grocery store nearby to buy some bird bait. Returning with a fresh fruit cup, he tossed a peeled hunk of orange under the shrubs, along with some melon and grapes.

A flock of pigeons first swooped down to snoop, but apparently this fruit buffet was not to their liking. Luckily for us, it was for Scottie. He beamed down on a lower branch to investigate, tilting his head back and forth, then coming forth to nibble a bit of cantaloupe. Hmm, the crowd murmured, don’t orioles nosh on oranges? Perhaps that particular piece of fruit was too close to us. Someone tossed a piece of honeydew melon further back, and that did the trick. Scottie hopped right down, perched on the piece, and started eating.

That's when the skirmish began. A starling came over to investigate, but Scottie shooed him away immediately. That starling came right back, however, and was treated to some vigorous pecking from his rival, much to the crowd's delight and awe. Here are some candid shots from the confrontation:

What you lookin’ at?

 

Touch this melon and I bust your beak!

 

The stare down.

 

To the victor go the spoils (note starling high-tailing it in the background)

When I finally returned to the office an hour later, I couldn’t help but feel sad for this erstwhile traveler who had no mate to nest with or show off such bravery. But with my sympathy came a deep admiration for his ability to not only adapt, but thrive (as you can see—while his love life might be suffering, his waist line is not!).  As I read other reports about the bird’s tenacity (like when he beat the tail feathers out of a sapsucker), I thought, Boy, this bird really was made for Manhattan!  In a city that welcomes people of every color, origin, and background, this transplant from the south didn’t seem so out of place after all.

PS: Remember that hunk of orange? It did not go to waste…

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