Bright Beautiful Breeding Baltimore Orioles

(Note: See below for information on the upcoming Eliza Howell nesting birds field trip — June 9, 2018)

Each year in May and June, visitors to Eliza Howell Park are treated to the sight and sound of Baltimore Orioles. The orioles spend the winters in Central America and arrive back in Detroit, with great regularity, during the first week of May. For those who are looking, their colors make them hard to miss.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

They begin to construct their intricately woven nests two to three weeks after the first arrivals. I noted the first Eliza Howell Baltimore Oriole this year on May 4 and saw a pair engaged in nest construction on May 18.

In a typical year, several different pairs nest in the park. From May 18 to May 21 this year, I have already seen 5 different nests under construction.

Most of the work of nest construction is done by the female over a period of 4 – 8 days. The nest is suspended from a twig, usually near the end of a branch. It is a pouch that looks something like a hanging sock. It is about 6 inches long, with a small opening at the top, and a bulging bottom (where the eggs are incubated). It is made of grasses, other plant fibers, and sometimes artificial material like yarn.

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The nest pictured above was made in the park last year, less than 10 feet from the ground. Usually they are much higher, in large leafy, deciduous trees, but not in a forest. Parks like Eliza Howell, with big scattered trees, are ideal spots. Over the years, I have come to know their tree preferences; this cottonwood by the road is definitely one. 

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The nests are easiest to find at this time of the year, during construction, when the bird is making frequent trips with nesting material. Without the bird leading the observer’s eye to the nest, it is very difficult to locate.

The following picture shows an incomplete nest in a typical location, hanging near the end of a branch. When the leaves are fully developed, it will be almost impossible to see from the ground. (This is also in a cottonwood tree.)

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Another good time to find a nest is during feeding time, when the adults (both male and female) make frequent visits to the nest to feed the young.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Detroit Audubon schedules an annual field trip to Eliza Howell for a guided look at nesting orioles and a number of other nesting species. It is timed for feeding hatchlings time. After the orioles complete the nests and lay the eggs, incubation (by female alone) takes about 12 – 14 days. 

     Detroit Audubon Nesting Songbirds Field Trip

     Saturday, June 9, 8:00 a.m. – approximately 10:00 a.m.

     Everyone is welcome, no cost. Audubon membership not required.

     Meeting location: about halfway around the road loop from the Fenkell entrance

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The orioles are called “Baltimore” because someone was reminded of Lord Baltimore’s yellow and black coat of arms. To me, they look much more orange than yellow. Regardless, they and I will be in the park to welcome everyone on June 9. 

THE OLD ELM TREE: A Nesting Tree

For many years, the American elm tree along the road loop in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit was my usual starting point for bird-watching walks. It is located near the beginning of the nature trail that leads to and over the Rouge River and so is a convenient place to park and to meet others. I no longer park under the tree, however. It dropped its last leaves in 2014 and is now beginning to drop a few of its branches.

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The elm tree was both a convenient place to park and the first place I would check for birds. In this location, it has been a stopping point as birds as they move back and forth from the wooded area by the river to the more open area inside the road loop. It has also been a destination, an attractive foraging and nesting spot.

Over of the years, Baltimore Orioles regularly nested in the elm. This made for a great beginning of the Detroit Audubon field trip at Eliza Howell in June. I would simply ask the participants to look up as they got out of their cars to find and watch the orioles – and the field trip was off to a good start.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

My favorite memory of nesting birds in the old elm tree is from June 9, 2013. As usual, Baltimore Orioles had built a nest there. And, in an exciting development that year, a pair of Orchard Orioles was also nesting in the same tree, as were robins. Three species nesting in one tree at the same time is very unusual, but on that day I noted a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher high in the tree, moving out on a horizontal branch. It led my eyes to its tiny nest. The old elm tree was host to four nesting species at the same time!

The elm tree had survived decades after Dutch elm disease killed most of the American elms in Detroit, but in 2014 the tree was clearly dying. It leafed out, but the leaves began to fall shortly thereafter. Baltimore Orioles were again nesting there and the young had just fledged when the leaves were no longer present to shelter the hanging nest.

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Though the orioles no longer nest there, the old elm tree continues to support life, from the perching birds to the shelf fungus that grew at its base in Fall, 2017.

As a large snag, still retaining most of its branches in 2107, the elm is now a popular perching tree, as well as a foraging spot for those birds that seek insects in crevices. During visits to the park in 2017, I observed 23 bird species in the tree, without any concerted effort to count them all. They included two hawks (Red-tailed and Cooper’s) and four woodpeckers (Red-bellied, Downy, Red-headed, and Norther Flicker). Male Red-winged Blackbirds watch over their territory from its branches during the breeding season. Whenever I am out with my binoculars, I check the tree from time to time, even from a distance, just to see what might have stopped by.

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This year or next, assuming it continues to stand, woodpeckers will likely be drilling holes and the old elm tree will again be a nesting tree. I will be checking regularly.