Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the December 6, 2009 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

The other day as I passed through the parking lot a commotion beside a car turned out to be a male oriole fighting with himself in a rearview mirror, as shown below:


It was a Black-cowled Oriole, ICTERUS DOMINICENSIS ssp. PROSTHEMELAS, sometimes named I. prosthemelas. He's distributed from southeastern Mexico to Panama, plus the Caribbean.

Though male Black-cowled Orioles are distinctive and easy to identify, I've mentioned how hard it is sometimes to distinguish juvenile and female orioles. Therefore, lately I've been paying special attention to the pale bluish area at the base of the oriole's lower mandible, which shows up nicely in the above photo. I used to think that that was just a shiny spot but finally it's sinking in that it can be a helpful field mark. Howell makes special mention of the fact that the Black-cowled Oriole's lower mandible is 30-60% blue-gray at its base while, by contrast, the Altamira Oriole's is only 5-25% blue-gray.

Poor oriole! You can see that his tail is frayed and if you'd watched how vigorously he attacked his reflection you'd understand how it got that way. When I drew too close he simply flew to the next car in line and within five seconds was attacking his reflection in that mirror! It was clear that he'd already become acquainted with that mirror, as he probably had all the mirrors on all the other cars. Just imagine that bird's anguish, knowing he had to deal with all those other male birds trying to barge into his territory.

Somehow he reminded me of that fellow in The Little Prince who felt such a burden because he imagined that the sun wouldn't rise each day if he weren't out there conducting the event.

from the June 20, 2010 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

Most mornings this week at about the same time each day, just before the sun came up but when already there was enough light to see things, a certain oriole has visited as I sat beside my hut's door eating breakfast. On the first morning he landed not ten feet from me and very plainly looked me over, first with the eye on one side of his face, then with the other, then he changed perches and did it all over again, then practically he hung upside down looking, then he flew closer, onto the ground, then onto a rock... and then he flew off. That's him on the ground below:

Black-cowled Oriole, ICTERUS DOMINICENSIS, immature

On subsequent visits his gawking was hardly less obtrusive; on Friday he arrived with his father, who behaved the same. Visits seldom last for more than a minute.

They're Black-cowled Orioles, ICTERUS DOMINICENSIS, and the one in the picture is immature.

I see several orioles each day. Usually they're the big, frequently-calling Altamiras, but also Hoodeds are common here. Black-cowled Orioles just show up from time to time, and when I do see one often it's that male still attacking his image in various car side-mirrors. I've not seen other orioles do this, nor have the immatures of other oriole species made such gawking visits to me. I'm getting the notion that this species tends to have some quirky behavior.

from the May 29, 2011 Newsletter issued from Mayan Beach Garden Inn 20 kms north of Mahahual, Quintana Roo, México

Here a pair of Black-cowled Orioles has hung a pendulous nest beneath a Coconut Palm frond about ten feet above the kitchen door, and on Wednesday the eggs hatched. You can see a parent feeding a nestling over the nest's rim below:

nest of Black-cowled Oriole, ICTERUS DOMINICENSIS ssp. PROSTHEMELAS

Everyone seeing the nest believes that at any time it must fall, since the palm's frond constantly heaves in wind that's always blowing in from the sea, sometimes mightily. But in years past Marcia has seen such nests much closer to the door and rocked much more vigorously than this one, so she's not worried.

Just what would it be like being a babe in that little nest beneath the yellow-green-translucent frond ceiling, being hatched into wind and the sound of ocean breakers and slamming screen doors, and having food delivered by hidden providers over the rim?

from the July 10, 2011 Newsletter issued from Mayan Beach Garden Inn 20 kms north of Mahahual, Quintana Roo, México

A yellow and black bird, a kind of oriole, landed on a Coconut Palm frond beside my upstairs porch, as shown below:

immature Black-cowled Oriole gathering nest fibers from Coconut Palm

My vision is poor so often I don't see a picture's details until the image is pulled onto the computer screen. When this new oriole picture appeared, I found I had several things to think about.

First of all, orioles can be hard to figure out because a single species can have different male, female and immature plumages, and even first-year and second-year ones. In this part of Mexico we can expect about eight oriole species and especially the female and immature plumages can look a lot alike. It took a while to figure out that what's in the picture is an immature male Black-cowled Oriole.

Also, our bird is collecting fibers from a Coconut Palm frond. Here Black-cowled Orioles make their pendulous nests from such fibers. You might remember the Black-cowled Oriole nest we posted at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110529or.jpg.

So, what's am immature oriole doing collecting fibers for a nest? Do immatures build practice nests? Do they help their parents, or other pairs of adults with their nests? Or is this immature mature enough to mate? In some bird species these things happen, but I can find no mention of it for this species.

Black-cowled Orioles occur from here to western Panama and just haven't been studied that much. Therefore, we'll just park our picture on the Internet and maybe someday a graduate student studying oriole nesting habits will learn something from it.

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

Biking the little road south of Pisté, as I passed a Huano fan-palm at the edge of the road and in front of a family's thatch-roofed hut, I noticed what's stuck to the underside of the palm's big frond shown below:

Black-cowled Oriole, ICTERUS DOMINICENSIS ssp. PROSTHEMELAS, nest beneath frond of Sabal yapa palm

It's a birdnest, and since it's a pendulous one the best bet is that it belongs to one of our several species of oriole. In fact, last summer down at Marcia's on the coast we looked at a Black-cowled Oriole's nest suspended beneath a palm's frond and it looked like this one. It also was constructed of stiff fibers teased from palm fronds, and situated low and surprisingly near frequent human activity and noise-making, so I'm betting that that's what this one is. Black-cowled Orioles are common here as well as along the eastern coast.

The most striking feature of this nest, though, was its architecturally arresting location. One can almost suspect that this oriole mama enjoyed an exceptionally refined esthetic sense.