Friday, May 03, 2013


In late February, the red-wing blackbird cracks winter's drear with the flash of its gaudy epaulets. Reliably, by the 27th or 28th, the red-wings stake out territories in the water meadow and announce their arrival with their raspy call. I've missed that seasonal ritual since I started spending the winters in the Bahamas.

I get back to New England in time for my own flashes of color.

The metallic blue of the tree swallows. The sky blue of the blue birds. And, most diagnostic of all, the incandescent orange of the Baltimore oriole.

As I stepped onto the plank bridge over Queset Brook on May Day morning, I stopped in my tracks. You know how it is when you have a sudden intuition that someone -- or something -- is watching. I looked up and there he was, ablaze on the topmost branch of a tree, the paraclete, the tongue of flame, anointing the new season.

The early-20th-century naturalist Neltje Blanchan called the Baltimore oriole a "feathered meteor." Well, yes, when he moves. But now he sits, surveying the territory, waiting for the arrival of the females, who are making a more leisurely journey north. Thoreau in his journals consistently refers to the bird as the "gold robin," which must have been common in his time, but which seems inappropriate to me. It's the difference between a feathered meteor and a grounded boulder.

I had always thought the Baltimore family, who founded the colony of Maryland, incorporated the colors of the bird into their family's coat of arms (and subsequently into the flag of the state of Maryland). I read as much in Mabel Osgood Wright's Birdcraft (1936). Now I discover that it was the other way round; the bird got its name from the colors of the Baltimore family crest.

Be that as it may, the new arrival at the top of the tree by the brook may have winged his way from as far afield as Central America. And now he waits, as he must, for a mate. Her colors are less flaggy than his, but she's the one with the architectural skills to build that marvelous oriole nest.