Field Notes – Gold in the Canopy
It's late spring and reverberating through a narrow, deep oak-wood valley in southwest England, from high up in the canopy, comes a sound I’d never expected to hear in these isles. A shimmering song, made up of rich, deep, flutey tones and a short, warbling phrase, bending between notes several times impossibly over the course of a second: a golden oriole.
This is the last week of May and I’d witnessed the second half of spring unfold in these valleys, listening, over several trips since the loosening of lockdown, to the oak wood specialists of redstarts, wood warblers and pied flycatchers forming the soundscape so distinctive to these fragments of Celtic forest. This seemed a bizarre and exotic addition.
I’d heard golden orioles several times before in Romania and Spain. Given their status in Britain – a scarce resident breeder with 0-2 breeding pairs recorded since 2017, all in poplar plantations in the southeast of the country, and a small number of passage birds appearing, also usually in the southeast – the chances of finding one in a lifetime of walking in these woods are incredibly slim.
I’d always held them uniquely in mind as a mysterious bird who’s place in the the field guides seemed marginally justified, on account of their extreme rarity here, seeing them more as a tropical-looking curiosity than a real part of the British landscape.
I didn't move to try to see it, as it was fifty metres up the steep bank and they're surprisingly difficult to see despite their bright plumage. It could fly any second: best to enjoy the moment.
As it was it sang just a handful of phrases, and that was it. Being with family and not my recording gear, I couldn't make a recording of what in all likelihood I'd never hear again (and coming back early the next morning proved to be fruitless). I did, however, manage to capture half of a single phrase on my phone – so see below to listen to what has to be one of my poorest recordings which also happens to be of one of the most sublime sounds Ive encountered - a golden oriole in a British oak wood.