An oriole’s winter itinerary

Black-naped Oriole at IIT-M. Photo: Sidharth Srinivasan   | Photo Credit: SIDHARTH SRINIVASAN

S. Balachandran lets data do the talking for the Black-naped Oriole’s winter planning. First, its frequency chart in the Western Ghats settles a question: It is big “winter visitor” in that range. Second, in contrast, its occurrence across Tamil Nadu as a whole, particularly in the plains, is best described as “scattered” and “not continuous”.

Deputy Director at the BNHS Regional Migration Study Centre in Point Calimere, Balachandran has had a Black-naped Oriole ringed and sent back into the wild. It was back in 2016, and that remains the only documented sighting of the Black-naped Oriole at Point Calimere, let alone ringing.

“Besides the fact that it winters in Western Ghats, we are not clearly aware of this species’ migratory route. Unless you ring a species in substantial numbers, any knowledge you have would only be patchy,” states Balachandran.

Black-naped Oriole at IIT-M. Photo: Mahathi Narayanaswamy

Black-naped Oriole at IIT-M. Photo: Mahathi Narayanaswamy  

So, is the Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis) not a winter visitor and only a sojourner in most parts of Tamil Nadu, particularly Chennai, pitching tent in some patches before settling down into a longer home stay elsewhere?

The BNHS scientist baulks at drawing that inference, and chooses the most sensible option: Keeping the door open for fresh insights.

“Nowadays, we notice the migratory patterns of many species changing due to various factors, says Balachandran, adding that new discoveries may be stemming simply from the fact that “more observations are being made now.”

Balachandran is obviously referring to citizen-science projects that bring more pairs of eyes to bird habitats.

Three young birders familiar with IIT-Madras, a source of photographic records about Black-naped Oriole sightings in Chennai, weigh in with their views in this matter.

They are: eBird reviewer Vikas Madhav Nagarajan; Sidharth Srinivasan, a resident of West Mambalam, currently pursuing a masters programme in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Studies, who has made IIT-M his birding patch, even now during flying visits to Chennai between semesters. Mahathi Narayanaswamy, given to recording bird calls, has the privilege of keeping her ear really close to the ground as she is a resident of IIT-M, and therefore having a glimpse of a wintering Black-naped Oriole is probably not as challenging as it could be for most others.

Fact Sheet
  • *Running through the eyes, broad black stripes meet, garlanding the nape in an arc
  • *In the female, the mantle bears a yellow that has a noticeable dash of green to it
  • *The bird feeds on berries and insects, with a particular taste for ficus fruits
  • *The Black-naped Oriole is at home in wooded habitats, particularly broadleaf forests

“There were not as many records of the Black-naped Oriole as there are today. All forested tracts in Chennai have records: IIT-M, Guindy National Park (GNP) and Madras Christian College (MCC) are among them. I have seen it at SSN College during the bird count. It needs trees, and are drawn to fruiting ficus trees, especially large ones like the Banyan,” says Vikas.

There have even been a couple of photographic records from Stella Maris, which has an impressive green cover.

Says Sidharth: “The Black-naped Oriole usually comes to IIT-Madras and GNP during winter, almost every season, as the records in eBird show. It migrates here for the winter, but could also be a passage migrant, because many of them go to the Western Ghats. It could be that the population that come here stays here. Or, it could be that a part of that population stays here, and the rest goes to the Western Ghats. We cannot be really sure about that. The number of sightings have definitely increased here — but one could attribute it to more pairs of eyes, and more reportings on eBird. It likes the forested parts of Chennai. Not only Chennai, it also occurs in other parts of the Coromandel Coast: It does like the forested habitats, the tropical dry evergreen forests. It should be more frequent and common in any of the wooded habitats of Chennai, but we really do not have a lot of that left. That may explain the number of sightings.”

Says Vikas: “If you look at Richard Grimmett, it will have a scattered appearance across Tamil Nadu. It will look like a very rare bird, with only a few records here and there, whereas it is a regular winter visitor, especially in our areas where you will definitely see the bird, if you go to the right place. The Black-naped Oriole would prefer a much thicker forest tract and a well-wooded country. The Indian Golden Oriole, which is a resident in Chennai with some local movement, is also at home in a wooded habitat, but is more eclectic, being found in thick forest; and may also be found in patches that are open scrub and open country, but have stands of trees.”

Mahathi says, “At IIT-M, due to a lot of birding activity, records of Black-naped Oriole emerge. The bird must be present in similar patches, which include the Theosophical Society campus.” She adds, “At IIT-M, there are many ficus trees across the campus, and Black-naped Orioles feed on their fruits, particularly those of the Banyan.”

('Migrant Watch' is a column about birds that visit Chennai during winter)

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 8:43:40 PM |

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