I am an ardent list-maker. I love lists of all kinds. Grocery lists, packing lists, to-do lists. Lists of trails hiked, books read, birds seen. So naturally, I have a "Life List" of bird species I've encountered in the wild. This year I decided to see how many different species of birds I can see in California in one calendar year: my own "Big Year," scaled-down to more manageable proportions.
I am happy to report that as of July 14, 2017, I have recorded 200 species of birds in California since January 1, 2017.
My 200th bird was one I have looked for unsuccessfully several times this year: a Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus). More than once, I've stood and watched a palm tree not too far from where I live that was reported to be a Hooded Oriole nesting site. And more than once, I've turned away without a new bird for my list.
Hooded Orioles are birds of the southwest, inhabiting open woodlands of sycamores, willows and cottonwoods trees. But perhaps the most important arboreal element for suitable Hooded Oriole habitat is the humble palm tree. These birds almost invariably choose nesting sites in palms, literally sewing their hanging nests onto the undersides of palm fronds by poking holes in the thick leaves and pushing fibers through to create stitches. In the southwestern United Sates, desert oases and suburban yards landscaped with palm trees are good places to look for this bird.
Much like the success Anna's Hummingbirds have experienced in expanding their range to follow landscape plantings of flowering ornamentals, Hooded Orioles have expanded their range north as ornamental palm trees have been planted in cities and suburban neighborhoods. (As of 2017, Hooded Orioles can be found in suburban areas as far north as Arcata, California.) This explains why I found my Hooded Oriole not at a lush desert oasis, but in a suburban backyard in Santa Rosa, California.
The credit for spotting the bird first goes to Eric. We were visiting family in Santa Rosa over the weekend, relaxing in the backyard, when Eric pointed out what looked to him like a Yellow-headed Blackbird (which are the same colors and a similar size and shape - a respectable guess, especially since the two species are both in the blackbird family, Icteridae). Because we were nowhere near suitable habitat for Yellow-headed Blackbirds (and possibly because I was otherwise engaged... jumping on a trampoline...) I didn't even look for the bird right away. But a few minutes later, a flash of brilliant yellow caught my eye and I saw it: a beautiful , unmistakable Hooded Oriole! Even without binoculars, there was no mistaking this bird. Luckily, my camera was on hand, and I managed to snap a few photos. I watched the pair of orioles for the rest of the evening as they foraged in the trees, flying from tree to tree and always returning to their chosen suburban palm tree.
One of the neat things about birding is the element of surprise. You never know when you'll see something really special. You may visit the confirmed nesting site of a certain bird, wait there for an hour and never see anything, only to have that same bird fly directly into your path in a completely unexpected place. Such was the case with my Hooded Orioles!
For those who are interested, at the end of this year I will publish a list of all the bird species I encountered in 2017!