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Levin: Oriole Nest

The Ompompanoosuc River has two branches: East and West, which arise on separate hills in Vershire. The West branch passes through Strafford; the East through West Fairlee. They merge behind Union Village Dam in Thetford Center.

Below the dam, the Ompompanoosuc flows a mile or so through Campbell Flats before offloading in the Connecticut.

Baltimore orioles love Union Village Dam. For them, it’s the perfect spot.

There are six miles of undulating shoreline, tall crown-spreading riverine trees in which to nest, and woods, meadows, and wetlands, which produce a cornucopia of food: like caterpillars, damselflies, dragonflies, soft-bodied grasshopper nymphs, and fruit: including shadberries, raspberries, cherries and blueberries.

Oriole nests have a distinctive shape – rather like a sock – and I usually find a few on the west side of the river, off the Mystery Trail, suspended from the high, thin branches of a large weeping willow that grows near the pond.

Last year, however, was different. A pair of orioles wove their nest on the east side of the river in a roadside black cherry, seven feet above the ground, in full view of passers-by.

In mid-June of last year, I watched the birds visit their nest twenty-two times in a little more than an hour. The male appeared twice as often as his mate, who may have been recovering from the busyness of building the nest, incubating the eggs, and brooding the hatchlings, mostly by herself.

The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont tells us that except in the northeast quadrant of the state where dark forests discourage orioles, over the last quarter of a century Baltimore orioles have held their own in Vermont. They prefer trees adjacent to open land: meadows and parks, rivers and cemeteries, town greens and golf courses, which is why Union Village Dam is so appealing to them.

In fact, there are more orioles in Vermont today than there were in the early 1700s, when the crosscut saw and long-handled ax opened our primeval forest.

On the day I observed this particular nest, the sky was blue, edge-to-edge. It was 70°. A warm wind drifted out of the southwest. The nest was like a metronome that swayed in the breeze, safe from pillaging squirrels and chipmunks, which would have had great difficulty climbing down the thread-like twigs that supported it.

Union Village Dam wasn’t Yellowstone with a meadow full of bison and elk and a pack of prowling wolves, but it was wild and peaceful and seemingly beyond the edge of human habitation. A flash of orange shot by and then vanished into draperies of green.

A chick scaled the rim of the nest, mouth agape... waiting. The male flew in, his Halloween plumage electric in the morning light, holding a dragonfly crosswise in his bill. He stuffed the insect down the gullet of the wide-mouthed chick. And for a moment, the insect’s long, transparent wings stuck out of both sides of the chick’s mouth – like an ephemeral mustache.

But for papa Oriole, there was no rest for the weary, and soon he was off again.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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