Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Altamira Oriole sipping flower nectar

from the April 3, 2016 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

The Spanish Plum tree, Spondias purpurea, in front of the hut is flowering, its tiny, red blossoms held in pea-sized clusters along its outer branches. We've looked closely at the Spanish Plum's flowers, fruits, leaves and other details, and reported on them at http:/www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/spondias.htm

Here during the heart of the dry season, especially in early mornings and late afternoons, I've noted a new feature of this fine tree, which is that a nice variety of birds visit it to walk along its branches dipping their beaks into one flower after another, clearly sipping nectar. The most commonly seen bird is the Altamira Oriole, an immature individual of which is shown taking a long, deep sip at the top of this page.

Orioles in general are known to have sweet-teeth. The About.Com web page on feeding backyard orioles lists such oriole favorites as grape jelly, orange marmalade, fruits such as oranges and bananas, and suet mixed with bits of fruit, berries or peanut butter. Jelly can be offered in small dishes or in hollowed-out orange rinds, or smeared across the face of a cut-open orange.

That page also reports that orioles will sip sugar-water at hummingbird feeders, if the feeder is big enough to hold them. Moreover, they'll be happy with water containing less sugar than hummingbirds want. Hummingbirds need a water to sugar ratio of 4:1, while orioles will do with 6:1. The About.Com page with more information on feeding orioles is at http://birding.about.com/od/birdfeeders/a/feedingorioles.htm

Altamira Oriole, ICTERUS GULARIS, foraging among Ceiba flowers

from the January 16, 2011 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

This week the Ceibas have been flowering much more prolifically than last year, and each morning each Ceiba has constituted nothing less than an animated and gaudy circus.

Beneath one tree you could stand and see dozens of orange or yellow and black orioles at one time -- mostly Altamira but also Hooded, Orchard, Yellow-backed and Baltimore. They, Melodious Blackbirds and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers were after nectar. You could see the woodpeckers' long, black, stiff tongues probing for nectar in the flowers' bottoms. The Squirrel Cuckoos and Turquoise-browed Motmot, however, were after insects, especially what looked like stingless Maya Bees.

A pretty picture of an Altamira Oriole merely hinting of what it was like appears above.

Altamira Oriole, ICTERUS GULARIS

from the November 29, 2009 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

The Hacienda offers wireless internet but the signal doesn't reach my place. Therefore each morning I pack up my laptop and head for the bar, which also is the computer room. Tuesday morning when I entered, the guys were standing around looking at the ceiling. An oriole had entered and didn't know how to get out. You can see him on a rafter right beneath the ceiling above.

That's an Altamira Oriole, ICTERUS GULARIS, a permanent resident from the southern tip of Texas through Mexico's eastern and southern lowlands, south to Nicaragua. They're common here and often you hear their bright chiu calls and other songs. This one called a few times while he was trying to escape, the feeling of being upset easy to hear in his voice.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/orioles.htm I list and talk about the northern Yucatan's six oriole species. Because the orioles' female, juvenile and first-year plumages are often similar among the species, in the field it can be hard to impossible to identify certain individuals to species level. Usually adult males are easy to distinguish, though. Still, our Hooded Orioles, also common here, look a lot like Altamiras.

The Hooded is a little smaller, has a decurved upper bill, and the large wing patch where the wing bends -- the upper wingbar -- is white, while you can see that the Altamira's is orange. In the field I find the first two field marks hard to use, so usually it comes down to hoping I have an adult male to look at and, if so, checking to see if the upper wingbar is white or orange.

This is another bird who favors semiopen and disturbed areas, which accounts for it common occurrence.

from the January 22, 2012 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

Last Monday morning, everything seemed hungry, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it was because it was such a perfect, moist, warm, springy morning (despite all the dry-season-falling leaves) that many organisms, including myself, just felt like gorging on everything.

For example, in a leafless, super-prolifically fruiting Cow-Itch tree (Urera baccifera) an Altamira Oriole took his time stuffing himself with BB-size fruits, as shown below:

Altamira Oriole, ICTERUS GULARIS, feeding on Urera baccifera fruits

Another Altamira Oriole perched atop the highest bouquet of a flowering African Tulip Tree dipping his beak into pooled water or maybe preying on flower bugs, the blossoms' yellow-orangeness perfectly complementing the oriole's bright plumage, as seen below:

Altamira Oriole, ICTERUS GULARIS, feeding atop African Tulip flowers

from the June 21, 2015 Newsletter issued from Río Lagartos, on the north-central coast of Yucatán, MÉXICO

Suddenly impressive oriole nests are appearing out in the scrub, such as the one shown below inside the tall fruiting head of a Caribbean Agave:

Altamira Oriole, ICTERUS GULARIS, nest in agave fruiting head

Along the coastal road, also you see lots of nests like the one shown below:

Altamira Oriole, ICTERUS GULARIS, nest amidst power lines

That one, instead of dangling freely as oriole nests normally do, is fairly stably wedged between the pole and the ground wire curving beneath it. In some spots along the road, every light pole for a good distance has its nest perched just like, plus other nests hang freely from wires between poles, blowing in the wind. Oriole nests have their entry holes at their tops. What appears to be an entry hole in this nest may just be a shadowy area, for it seems too small for an oriole to enter.

Seeing how large these nests were, I figured they were being made by Altamira Orioles, our largest oriole species and the one known to construct the largest nests, normally about two feet long (60cm). And that was the case when I came upon a bird working on a nest, shown below:

Altamira Oriole, ICTERUS GULARIS, building nest

I read that the male follows the female while she collects nest materials, and remains nearby during nest building, incubation, and when she broods the chicks, so apparently our picture shows a female; I saw no male hanging around. In this species, the sexes are similar.

It's amazing to think about the detail of the nest-making information that must be stored in these birds' genes. The AllAboutBirds.Org website describes the Baltimore Oriole's nest-building technique, which is similar to the Altamira's. First the female hangs long fibers over the branch or wire, then pokes and darts her bill in and out of them until she tangles them. "While no knots are deliberately tied, soon the random poking has made knots and tangles, and the female brings more fibers to extend, close, and finally line the nest," the page says. Seeing the neat, tight loops anchoring the above nest to the wire, it's hard to believe that mere random poking created them.

When the above bird would finished adding a fiber, she'd immediately fly into the scrub, be gone three to five minutes, and return with another fiber. She'd rest on the wire, fiber in beak, for maybe fifteen seconds, then go to work. The nest oscillated furiously because of a strong wind that day, and the bird had to contort herself into all kinds of shapes to do her weaving. Try to figure out her leg positions in the picture below:

Altamira Oriole, ICTERUS GULARIS, constructing nest

And imagine what strain was felt with the wing way back and the tail way forward as she struggled on the gyrating nest below:

Altamira Oriole, ICTERUS GULARIS, making nest

Altamira Orioles are known to take up to 26 days to finish their big nests, much longer than the temperate-zone species. Soon after these pictures were taken I returned to the area to find fewer nests than before. A big rain had come with strong wings, so maybe many fell apart or came loose from their anchoring.