One of these spots was the Serranias del Burro, a low mountain range just across the border in northern Coahuila. It just looked so inviting on our map. No parks, no access roads; it seemed like an unexplored wilderness. What amazing things might we find there? We had to go.
So, on a long weekend, we packed up and drove to Piedras Negras. Crossing the border and traveling in Mexico was so much easier then. We drove to Muzquez and then turned back to the north to get to the Serranias. On a lonely road we saw a small house and a dirt road leading up into the mountains. Somehow we communicated our desire to hike on this land (ranch?) and got permission. I still don’t know how we did that. No doubt they thought we were crazy.
We backpacked in for two days and for over 20 miles. The land was dry brush country, almost desert. We could see the vegetation and the topography changing up ahead as we gained altitude. It drew us forward. But our packs were heavy with all the water and camera equipment we were carrying. So we drank most of our water and stashed the camera gear in hollow yucca trunks. We pressed on.
An hour or so later we were in a much greener forest area. A misty rain began to fall, even as the sun shone. The light was absolutely beautiful. All sorts of birds, many we’d never encountered before, began to sing. Green Jays came close enough for photos. Too bad we had stashed our cameras back down the trail.
Nearby a bird called out a hoarse “Renk…renk,” and then it sang the sweetest song. It was a plaintive, whistled melody. We had never heard anything like this song. The notes were in a slow series, slightly off key. We knew we had come upon a wonderful tropical bird. A flash of yellow ahead of us caught our attention.
We followed the song through this wet forest. Occasionally, we glimpsed a yellowish bird with a dark head. For a while, we thought the bird was a Green Jay but with an unusual song. Finally, the rain stopped, and in the watery light, we got a good look at the singer. It had a black head and tail and blackish wings. The rest of its body was a rich yellow with greenish tints on its back. It was no Green Jay. It was a new bird for us.
Since our bird book was stashed down the mountain with the camera gear, we weren’t really sure what bird this was until the next day. But we had taken notes and made sketches. The high point of the 25-mile hike back out was retrieving our bird guide and finding out we had seen an Audubon’s Oriole.
Since that trip, we moved to South Texas, and encountering Audubon’s Orioles is not unusual anymore. We even have one (or a family) that comes to our feeder here in Bee County. These orioles are partial to black-oil sunflower seeds. Even so, we hear them more often than we see them.
Audubon’s Orioles are not that rare, but they are rather secretive. They are residents in the South Texas brush and along the Rio Grande. In this habitat, these large orioles stick close to the densest vegetation. And it seems to me if you stare at them too long, they go deeper into a thick cover of leaves.
The birds forage quietly in the trees and brush, taking insects and occasionally small fruits, such as hackberries. Their quiet manners and retiring ways prevent them from being conspicuous, especially since they share habitat with clamorous Green Jays and noisy Kiskadees. Audubon’s Orioles are indeed low profile birds.
These orioles are frequently found in pairs throughout the year. It is assumed that these are mated birds, but it is difficult to be sure since males and females look very much alike. The females are said to be a little smaller and duller in color. If you observe them for a while you may be able to distinguish the sexes.
Audubon’s Orioles were first collected in South Texas by naturalists stationed at Fort Brown and Fort Ringgold in the 1800s. They were originally named Black-headed Orioles. In Mexico, these orioles were called “calandrias.” By some accounts, calandrias were kept as cage birds. No doubt, their infrequent but sweet song was a large part of their appeal.
One of these early naturalists, a Lt. Couch, was tasked with collecting specimens of these orioles in 1862. He observed a pair feeding one morning and quickly shot down the male. He wrote “the female flew to a neighboring tree, apparently not having observed his fall; soon, however, she became aware of her loss and endeavored to recall him to her side with a simple “pout pou-it” uttered in a strain of exquisite sadness, that I could scarcely believe such notes to be produced by a bird…and that I felt almost resolved to desist from making further collections in natural history.”
Oberholser in The Bird-Life of Texas (1974) describes the Audubon’s Oriole’s song as “a series of low mellow whistled notes of human quality, slow and disjointed, and with half-tones.” Birders often say it sounds like a boy just learning to whistle. Everyone agrees it is one of the special sounds of South Texas. What a joy it is to be in the Brush Country!