August 3, 2017
Streak-backed Oriole male at nest
Streak-backed Oriole male at nest
One of my biggest regrets in life is that I never learned Spanish.  Certainly, in hindsight, if I had known I was to spend much of my adult life in the Southwest, I would have done so.  Four years of high school Latin, one year each of Spanish, Russian, and French in college, and now all these years later it’s all Greek to me, though I pride myself on speaking English correctly.  A birding incident over twenty years ago, unbelievably funny in retrospect though not so much at the time, highlighted my inability to speak or understand Spanish.

Back in the early ‘90s a highly respected Arizona birder discovered a pair of Streak-backed Orioles nesting on private property in the southeastern part of the state.  It was the first nesting record for this species in Arizona, but there was no lister stampede to see these birds because the discoverer, quite rightly given the Orioles’ location, suppressed the sighting.

As often happens, however, word of the sighting and its location somehow leaked out when the birds returned to the same general area the following summer.  The nest itself was again on private property, but now there was access to an observation point along a supposed public riparian corridor.  It was made incumbent upon birders not to cross fencelines else all access to the area could be withdrawn.

Even at this very early stage of carrying my camera everywhere, I had learned two things essential to successful rarity photography:  the first was to wait until it could be assumed all the listers had already flocked to see the bird; the second was to dress in camouflage.  Several years ago I wrote a column about an unsuspected disadvantage to the second of these--  This incident was my introduction to that disadvantage.

Dressed in full camo, carrying a zoom lens, and without a tripod, I walked down the river along the fenceline, not another person or birder in sight.  Having followed the directions to the letter, I unexpectedly came to a corner fencepost.  The river beyond was unfenced, but no mention of this appeared in the directions I had.  Puzzled, I hesitated, then saw an oriole fly into a tree fifty yards down the perpendicular fenceline, just inside the enclosed large mesquite bosque.  I raised the glasses, saw the hanging basket nest, and made my way down the outside of the fence festooned with “No Trespassing” signs.

I stopped behind a huge old mesquite just outside the fence and twenty yards from the oriole tree inside the fence.  Within minutes the male Streak-backed appeared, chased off a Brown-crested Flycatcher he deemed too close to his territory, then deposited a strip of cottonwood bark and strands of river grass near the entrance hole at the top of the basket and began weaving them intricately into its lattice work.

The nest was perhaps thirty feet off the ground, and those with camera experience know how futile it is to shoot upward and expect everything in the vertical plane to be sharply focused.  Unencumbered with a tripod, lens around my neck, I immediately began climbing “my” mesquite, one branch to another, until I was just about even with the nest, mostly hidden from it by the large bole of my tree which provided its own camouflage and good support for hand holding the lens.  Perfect!  I glanced at my watch.  9:00am.

Elated with the ingenuity of my photographic solution, and without a thought to any potential problems with my position in the crotch of a tree twenty feet off the ground in a strange place, I happily shot the comings and goings of both oriole parents until the female came in one last time at 9:45 and never left—apparently eggs in the basket, and she was keeping them cool as the heat of the July day approached.  Without lunch or water, I figured I had been there long enough and had plenty of shots.  You’re figuring the humor is going to somehow be the difficulty of the descent from my little photo aerie.  You would be right, but not for the reason you’d suspect or I could have foreseen.

Ten o’clock now, getting hot, and my legs starting to cramp, I uncurled them to begin my descent.  Suddenly I heard voices!  A couple, presumably the property owners, were walking through the bosque toward me with their teenage daughter.  Yes, they were conversing in Spanish and no, I didn’t have time to get down before they would see/hear me.  Trespassing, which I was pretty sure I technically and legally wasn’t, was the smallest of my issues.  The biggest was imagining how I would explain to them what I was doing up in a tree, in camoflouge, with a camera, looking into their property.  If they even spoke English.

My spur of the moment decision, probably not a good one as it turned out, was to stay put and hope, pray actually, they didn’t see me.  This seemed like a viable plan until I noticed the blanket and picnic basket they were carrying.  As you’ve guessed by now, their picnic took place under the next big mesquite inside the fence, between my tree and the orioles’ tree.  Talk and laughter until burritos, chips, and dip at 11:00.  Desert, some kind of decadent looking cake, was around noon.  I never heard a word of English.  I assure you, in my physical and emotional discomfort, I had completely forgotten about camera and birds and no, neither the orioles nor the picnickers ever saw me.

At 12:45 the father began packing things up but, to my consternation, he left without them, mother and daughter staying behind for a heart-to-heart.  There were tears, there were hugs, handkerchiefs and cold drinks were passed, and I recognized just enough Spanish words to contextualize angst and know a boy was involved.  Probably best that I didn’t understand Spanish.  They finally left at 1:45.  That’s almost five hours if you’ve been keeping time with me!  Definitely best that I had not brought any water with me.

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I hope you enjoy the photos on our Streak-backed Oriole page-- little more now that you know what I went through to get some of them.