A burst of colour

I’ve always said that if we didn’t have Blue Jays on Prince Edward Island and one suddenly showed up, we’d all be buzzing about this visit from such a beautiful bird. The different shades of blue, accented by black and white, make this very common species visually stunning. And there’s the rub—it is a common species. When something is common, we tend to overlook it. Or undervalue it.

The same can be said for native plants. We have such a range of spectacular shrubs here—everything from Red Osier Dogwood to Winterberry Holly—that too often get overlooked when landscaping because they are seen as common.

Yet rarities will always attract attention. Such was the case during a recent birding trip to East Point and the surrounding areas. Despite the blusteriness, it was a lovely visit. Huge waves crashed in, and about 500 Black Scoters were body-surfing relatively close to shore. These small, jet-black ducks are one of our most common winter species. White-winger Scoters and Surf Scoters are often seen here during the winter, but neither species was present during the visit. There were also Great Cormorants, Common Eiders, and lots of Iceland Gulls braving the windy conditions.

But the highlight of the day was seeing a rare Baltimore Oriole at a feeder in the area. I hadn’t seen one in the province for at least 40 years, when I lived in Montague. One summer a pair of these beautiful birds decided to regularly visit my backyard, an unforgettable experience.

Male Northern Cardinals and some of the colourful warblers, including the Blackburnian and the American Redstart, are unquestionably gorgeous. Yet Baltimore Orioles just might take the prize for our most beautiful bird. The brilliant orange and black plumage of the male Baltimore Oriole make this an unmistakable sight. The young males and females are more yellow than orange but still quite distinctive.  Size-wise, they are smaller than an American Robin, and more slender than stout, with pointed beaks and long tails.  

Baltimore Orioles are usually found in more southerly locations, though a few winters back there was one in Charlottetown and another in Vernon Bridge. This winter, there are at least two in the eastern part of the province, both coming to feeders.

Orioles are birds that infrequently visit the province. You’re more likely to see a Baltimore Oriole than its even rarer cousin, the Orchard Oriole. In the province’s Field Checklist of Birds, the former is listed as Rare (one to five birds per season) thoughout the year, while the latter is listed as Accidental (nine or fewer birds per century) only during the Spring and Summer season. Baltimore Orioles have nested in the province, but that is a rare occurrence.

Though Baltimore Orioles feast on oranges and grape jelly, they will also feed on suet and will eat seeds that have been cracked by other birds. In the wild, they primarily feed on nectar, insects, and fruit. Which is why PEI isn’t normally a part of their winter range. 

Orioles make hanging basket nests, intricately weaving fibers together to make a protective home in which to lay eggs. One observer watched a female Baltimore Oriole stripping fibers from swamp milkweed plants for this purpose.

And I always thought it strange to name a bird after a city. But I had it all wrong. It turns out that the colours are the same as those of the heraldic crest of England’s Baltimore family. I’ll keep that in mind the next time one pops up.