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Of the many rare birds in Connecticut, several occur more prevalently in New London County than elsewhere. The orchard oriole is one of those species.
Historically, orchard orioles, once more common, bred in coastal lowlands and the Connecticut River Valley. Today, nesting pairs are seldom found outside of this area.
State records show that the orchard oriole favors the southern agricultural parts of the state and did fairly well there up until the 1950s when numbers dropped off abruptly. However, by the late 1970s orchard orioles became more numerous. Although the cause is not known for certain, the orioles' population decline corresponds with the indiscriminate use of pesticides during that time and its recovery with the passing of pesticide legislation.
It is also likely that sales of agricultural land for development had a negative impact on the orchard orioles, whose moniker truly denotes its preferred habitat. They nest in tall orchard-sized trees adjacent to bodies of water. Today's landscape is shaded with much larger and older trees that northern orioles favor.
Orchard orioles camouflage well into foliage, unlike northern orioles that catch the eye every time. Orchard orioles show a dull chestnut breast with black wings and head. They have a white wing bar and dark tail feathers. They are smaller, more compact, than northern orioles and have a much shorter tail. Birders often mistake them for warblers.
Neither of these species has returned yet - but in about three weeks northern orioles will arrive. Orchard orioles typically show up in mid-May. Look for the rare orchard oriole wherever the aforementioned habitat is found. They may also turn up in suburban settings, especially where the trees are spaced apart. Golf courses are good places to search, too.
Haley Farm in Groton is a reliable site known to harbor a few nesting pairs. The Matthies Tract of The Connecticut Arboretum is another place to find these birds during the months of May and June. Nehantic State Forest and Hartman Park, located in Lyme off Route 156, may yield sightings along the roads or ponds. Last year, birders found them at Babcock Wildlife Management Area in Colchester near the abandoned orchard and at Elm Grove Cemetery in Mystic.
Now is the time to prepare for their arrival. Have oriole feeders ready in place by the end of this month. Be sure to keep suet available and offer sliced oranges in full view. The orchard oriole is rare but chances are you will get northern orioles. Imagine this bird, as bright as the orange sun, and black as the darkest night, flitting about the feeder right before your eyes.
Robert Tougias is a birding author based in Colchester. He is available for presentations and field excursions and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.