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South Carolina has largest number of wintering orioles for fourth year in a row May 3, 2018

Long known for its hospitality to visiting Northerners, South Carolina can now claim to be the state where Baltimore orioles feel most at home during the winter.

For the fourth year in a row, South Carolina had the largest number of orioles wintering in the United States. Those results were recorded during the fourth annual Baltimore Oriole Winter Survey, conducted by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Feb. 16-19. SCDNR’s survey was held in conjunction with the Great Backyard Bird Count, (GBBC). Tapping into this longstanding citizen-scientist project allowed SCDNR to get a better picture of the status and distribution of this beautiful songbird wintering in the Palmetto State.

A pair of Baltimore orioles (adult male on left, immature right) prepare to enjoy tasty feeder treats of grape jelly and an orange half. For the fourth year in a row, bird counts have found that South Carolina has the largest number of wintering orioles in the United States. (Photo by David Ramage)

A pair of Baltimore orioles (adult male on left, immature right) prepare to enjoy tasty feeder treats of grape jelly and an orange half. For the fourth year in a row, bird counts have found that South Carolina has the largest number of wintering orioles in the United States. (Photo by David Ramage)

Survey participants in South Carolina submitted 64 reports and recorded 228 orioles. The number of reports was similar to past years, and the number of orioles recorded was noticeably less for the second year in a row. A high count of 463 was recorded in 2016. Even though many participants were having large numbers of orioles present at their feeders this year, earlier in the winter, unseasonably mild weather was in place prior to and during the survey period. During milder weather, orioles may not frequent feeders as often as they would during colder weather or may be completely absent as they forage for natural foods.

This year, 33 of the 64 participants were new to the survey, for a total of 142 participants to date. Participation in the survey may have been down due to the lack of orioles visiting their usual sites. Participants counted and reported the largest number of orioles they could see at one time, on one, two, three or all four days of the survey period. When possible, the age and sex of the orioles were recorded as well. Participants were also encouraged to report the absence of orioles and the largest number they have seen at one time so far, during the winter months, (December, January and February). Reporting the absence of orioles is just as important to the survey as the number of orioles seen.

An interesting addition to the survey this year was a female Bullock’s oriole, visiting a feeder in Mt Pleasant. There are only a handful of records for this species in the state. This Western species was once lumped with the Baltimore oriole and considered to be one species, the Northern oriole. Female Bullock’s can be very difficult to identify. Like female Baltimores, they can have a good bit of variation in their plumage color. The bird was first seen by a local birder, who thought it was a strong possibility for a Bullock’s. Identification was confirmed by an experienced bird bander, that was able to trap the bird to collect measurements, study its plumage in the hand and band it.

Orioles were recorded in 13 South Carolina counties and ranged from the Midlands and throughout the coastal plain, from North Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head. Charleston County had the most reports and recorded the largest number of orioles, reporting 33 percent of the total number of orioles in the state. Neighboring counties, Berkeley and Dorchester, reported good numbers as well. In the Columbia area, Lexington and Richland counties had a slight increase in reports and orioles recorded.

According to the GBBC and the SCDNR survey, there were a total of 229 reports and 686 orioles recorded this year in the United States. These numbers are down some from last year. This was likely due to the unusual cold weather early in the season and the mild weather around the survey time-period. South Carolina had the second largest number of reports, just shy of Florida’s 65 reports. Orioles were noted from Massachusetts to Florida and along the Gulf coast to Louisiana. An oriole was also reported in California.

Baltimore orioles are neotropical migrants, normally wintering in South and Central America and migrating to North America to nest. During the last few decades, however, this species has begun wintering annually in Southeast. Though scientists are not sure why these birds have begun overwintering in growing numbers, the birds respond well to the popularity of backyard bird feeding. Orioles by nature have a “sweet tooth” and will eat nectar from flowers and wild fruits. Their favorite bird-feeding food by far is grape jelly. Orange halves can be offered, but most orioles tend not to eat them much. People often put oranges out to attract the orioles to the feeding area. Other items orioles will eat are suet products (homemade, cakes, bark butter, logs, etc.), sugar water (they will drink from hummingbird or oriole nectar feeders), seed mixes (seem to prefer nut and fruit mixes), sliced grapes and mealworms (live or freeze-dried).

“We would like to thank everyone that participated in the survey,” said Lex Glover, wildlife technician with the SCDNR Bird Conservation Program. “Your time and efforts are greatly appreciated.”

Next year’s survey and Great Backyard Bird Count will be Feb. 15-18. 2019. If you have orioles frequenting your feeders during the winter months, (December, January and February), or know someone who does, SCDNR would like to have you participate in the survey. For more information on this survey or to receive a complete report of this year’s survey results, contact Lex Glover at gloverl@dnr.sc.gov. For more information on the Great Backyard Bird Count, check out its web page at https://gbbc.birdcount.org/.

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