Olive-backed Orioles in the Gresswell Forest

I’m not a ‘Facebook person’, honest! I never post updates on my wall, my profile photo has remained unchanged for years, and I have a handful of ‘friends’. I am, however, an active member of the ‘Victorian Birders Facebook Group’, and I highly recommend joining (if you are a Victorian resident). The 300+ members regularly post bird photos, trip reports and queries; there’s a genuine sense of community since everyone is eager to discuss topics ranging from a good budget lens for beginners to where’s the best spot to see a Rufous Bristlebird.

On Friday 26 September, a member posted an amazing photo of an Olive-backed Oriole that was seen in Hepburn Springs (about 130km away from my suburb). It was the first time that I had ever heard of this species, and definitely the first time that I had seen a photo of one. It is a stunning bird! Slightly smaller than a Little Wattlebird, adults have pinkish beaks, red eyes, white chests with dark streaks, and, as the name suggests, olive (dull green) backs. I was prepared to drive for almost two hours to tick this bird, and said as much when I commented on the photo. Another group member posted soon after to say that he had seen a pair that morning (and earlier in the week) in the Gresswell Forest Nature Conservation Reserve: a mere 10 minute drive from my home! Imka was just as ecstatic as I, and we were determined to find these birds on Saturday morning, especially since they are an uncommon spring migrant this far south.

The 50 hectare reserve is located in the north east Melbourne suburb of Macleod, just 30 minutes drive from the CBD. It is an island of Red Gums surrounded by suburban houses, where more than 80 bird species have been recorded, and Kangaroos and Echidnas are regularly seen. The reserve is criss-crossed by at least a dozen tracks (including the weirdly named ‘Gaza Strip’), so I downloaded a PDF version of the Parks Victoria map to use in the Avenza app. (It’s a nifty app that plots your GPS location on the PDF map – very useful since Google Maps doesn’t name every single walking track in the bush, whereas Parks Victoria does.) There is ample street parking near the many gates: we took the scenic route and at 9am we entered the reserve through Gate 11 at the intersection of the Dianella and Yellowbox Tracks. I chose this particular entrance because I knew that there would be a block of toilets further down the track.

Gresswell Nature Conservation Reserves

Gresswell Nature Conservation Reserves

Just as we entered the reserve, Imka spotted a visibly injured Musk Lorikeet on the path and decided to scupper our birding outing in favour of taking the bird to a vet. She forgot her bird-holding techniques learned from caring for her Amazon Parrots back in the Caribbean, and was promptly bitten by an annoyed bird which decided to fly off into the distance. As Stephen King would say, that lorikeet “passes out of this tale forever like a certain paper boat some of you may remember” (from the horror novel, It).

We did see many more lorikeets (both Musk and Rainbow), as well as Common Starlings and Mynahs, Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, Little Ravens, Magpies and other common ‘birds of the suburban bush’. By 9:15am there was no sign of the Olive-backed Oriole, and in a fit of impatience, I posted a message on the Facebook birding group saying something like “Where’s this bird at? I’m here and can’t find it.” Within 30 seconds, the man that had seen it the day before replied and said that he was in the area and would help me find it! And this, avid readers, is where the power of Facebook came into play: we exchanged a few Facebook messages to confirm our locations and 5 minutes later we met at the billabong. The awkwardness of meeting a total stranger off the Internet lasted mere seconds (because he seemed like a nice guy), so Imka and I duly followed the Oriole-Whisperer (henceforth referred to as “O.W.“) deeper into the forest.

Every couple of metres, O.W. would stop and listen for the distinctive call of the oriole; when he heard a faint call, we hurried off in the general direction that we thought the call was coming from. O.W.’s ears often pricked up and asked “did you hear it?” I enthusiastically nodded, but despite studying the call on my birding app, I really couldn’t hear squat! I was thinking to myself that O.W. was like a birding savant who could identify the age, sex and last meal of a bird just by hearing a half-second call from a thousand paces. My flippant thoughts were interrupted by the unfamiliar call of a bird mere metres away and O.W. said “heard it?” “Yes!”, I cried truthfully, and our party of three stumbled through the bush, literally ‘off the beaten track’. I was sure that I spotted a juvenile oriole being chased by a Magpie high in the treetops. O.W. seemed to think so too, but this was far from a convincing sighting and I was not prepared to tick it, so we kept weaving our way through the bush, like rats following the tune of the Pied Piper. Not even the small group of juvenile Kangaroos a couple arms’ lengths away in the undergrowth could have distracted us from our mission.

As any birder knows, often times the closer you get to a bird, the more difficult it is to pinpoint. We got to a clearing and the oriole’s very loud call now seemed to be coming from all directions. It was Imka who first spotted the quarry and gestured for me to come see it. I could hear the sweet call rapidly devolving into the mimicry of lorikeets but couldn’t see the well-camouflaged bird until it moved. The awestruck feeling of suddenly seeing a magnificent, adult Olive-backed Oriole was reminiscent of the moment when you finally saw the 3D image ‘pop’ in those stereograms from the 1990s: once seen, it was impossible to un-see.

The bird was sitting at eye-level on a horizontal branch of a Cherry Ballart (or Casuarina – I’m no tree expert), calling incessantly. O.W. and I enjoyed prolonged, clear views of the bird hopping from branch to branch, catching caterpillars, while Imka snapped dozens of photos with our point-and-shoot camera. Like a ‘birding mystic’ who appears in novice birders’ times of need, O.W. found us an oriole and said his goodbyes (and we gave our thanks) all in the space of 15 minutes – we definitely wouldn’t have been able to find the bird (birds?) without him. Once we learned the bird’s call, we followed the bird through the forest for another 10 minutes before we bid it farewell and good luck. It was another fruitful morning of birding in our ‘backyards’, with the Olive-backed Oriole being our 146th species ticked for the year.

Its back really is olive-coloured!

Its back really is olive-coloured!

Caterpillar for breakfast

Caterpillar for breakfast

Olive-backed Oriole

Olive-backed Oriole – the best of the photos that Imka took. (Click to open a sharper, higher resolution version.)

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