Every April, it’s always a pleasure to welcome a touch of almost tropical ambience surrounding my home in the Algarve hills as the Eurasian golden orioles arrive and not only look stunningly beautiful, the serenade of their song echoing off the ridges makes it feel like you’ve been whisked away to a tropical island.
However, you don’t have to be in the hills to experience them as they can be found throughout Portugal and indeed a lot of southern and mid European countries.
Even the UK can have small numbers, usually as migrants passing through the south-coast, and have been known to breed in a reserve in Suffolk. Until 2005, a similar species in Asia, the Indian golden oriole was regarded as the same species, but this has now been officially split as a different species.
Golden orioles (scientific name of Oriolus oriolus) are masters of camouflage and are fantastic magicians of disappearance even with their striking plumage. The male is a rich bright yellow with contrasting black wings and a bright red bill. The female also sports the red bill but has a duller green colouring. Juveniles are similar in appearance, but the bill gradually turns from a dark colour to red as it ages. They are a similar size and shape to a blackbird at around 24cm in length with a wingspan circa 45cm.
The obvious giveaway to their location is their incredible flute-like song which is unmistakable once heard. It is difficult to explain in writing, so to cite Wikipedia’s explanation, it sounds like “weela-wee-ooo” or “or-iii-ole”. If you take a search on the internet, it’ll make sense! Their call is a harsh screech, not too dissimilar (but more tuneful) to a jay. As I sit here, early morning in the garden, it is a pleasure to write about them whilst they sing away in nearby trees.
If you can imagine a strikingly beautiful bird singing an amazing song could be easy to spot, you would be wrong. As I mentioned earlier, being shy, they are a master of disappearance, being able to easily hide amongst green leaves. I have often stood in front of a eucalyptus or cork oak with a male singing at the top of his voice but have found him impossible to spot, which, of course, makes photographing them close-up very difficult.
The male usually arrives at the beginning of breeding season, a few days before the female arrives, and their small hammock-style, deep-cupped nest is built high up in a branch fork by the female with the male helping with the delivery of the material.
A clutch of usually four eggs is laid and hatch after three weeks of mainly female incubation. Both parents will feed the young, and this is the perfect time to watch and photograph as the young can be seen flying around chasing each other.
The Portuguese name of ‘papa figos’ suggests their favourite food, figs, and any other similar fruit belonging to the fig family. Therefore, if you have fig trees, it is always a good opportunity to spot them. However, just yesterday I watched a female chasing and catching an insect in flight. I suspect this is to supplement protein in their diet.
I am often contacted during the winter by people suggesting that they can hear golden orioles singing during the winter. They migrate back to Southern Africa in September and often both the spotless and common starlings mimic their call throughout the autumn and winter months and, although they are good, if you listen closely, they just cannot match the clarity of the real thing!
As already mentioned, not only is spotting them difficult, but photographing them is even more so. It is a case of finding a location and sitting very patiently, out of sight if possible.
If you want to make life easier and guarantee viewings, the fantastic ‘Paradise in Portugal’ on the bank of the Barragem de Santa Clara is the perfect location. This ecological lodge is run by bird guru and guide Frank McClintock, and he has a purpose-built golden oriole hide. I spent the early hours of yesterday morning there and was thrilled with the viewings and photographs I took. Never have I experienced such an aptly named location.
More information can be found at www.paradise-in-portugal.com
By Craig Rogers
Craig Rogers is a wildlife and nature photographer from Wales now living in the Algarve, offering photography workshops. For more information, photographs and his blog visit www.craigrogers.photography
Photos: CRAIG ROGERS