Focus on Nature: From day lilies to orioles

When driving along our highways during the past month, have you noticed the clumps of tall orange flowers growing along the roadside? This introduced perennial plant that primarily originated from East Asia is called the orange day lily. It has been in cultivation for a long time.

These old-fashioned day lilies are rarely offered today by the horticulture industry but have been replaced by hybrids of various colors, sizes and lengths of blooming time. The orange day lily blossoms for a month and each large 3 1/2-inch flower lasts only a single day, giving it its common name — day lily. The plant was well known in our parents’ and grandparents’ time, often outlasting the buildings that surrounded it and their inhabitants.

This colorful orange day lily was the first flower I became aware of in my dad’s garden. It was probably brought into his flower garden from a random clump found nearby where an old house once stood. Through the years I’ve always appreciated this relic of the past.

Many years ago, we enjoyed watching a pair of orioles as they built an intricate gourd-shaped nest on the end of a branch of a big hickory tree in our backyard. They returned for many years and we always enjoyed watching them. When we knew there were orioles around we used to put pieces of cotton string around for them to use. We miss hearing their song coming from the tops of the trees and miss seeing these brilliantly colored birds living in our backyard.

We were fortunate recently to receive a call from our son, who had a pair of orioles that had built near his porch on a low-hanging tree branch. He said the pair was busy feeding young and thought we might like to watch them and try to photograph them. We were out the door as soon as we could grab our equipment and some lunch! What a delightful few hours we had as we sat and watched and photographed this colorful pair of birds flying in and out, feeding their young.

These birds are migratory and arrive in the states during the spring to breed and raise their young. Then they return to Mexico and Central and South America in the fall. They nest all across eastern North America, where their nests are hung by the rim from low-hanging branches woven from hair, plant fibers and maybe some string.

The Baltimore oriole was first illustrated and described by Mark Catesby in 1731. It was thought to have been called an oriole after the Old World oriole, but the Baltimore oriole is actually a small blackbird. The male is brightly colored in orange and black and the female is a yellow brown with darker wings and dull orange on its breast and belly.

The parents we were watching seemed to have no difficulty in finding food for their young. Orioles eat caterpillars, fruit,  insects, spiders and nectar. What we saw them feeding were small green inchworms. They were in and out of the nest quickly as food was so plentiful, often both arriving back at the nest at the same time with food in their mouth and having to decide who would deliver first and then leave quickly so the other could deposit their fresh-caught meal.

While keeping our eyes closely on this busy family we began to notice movement in the soft hanging nest. Sure enough, the young were moving about inside. It was then that we watched as the female slowly worked her way down into the nest — all the way into the nest until you could see no sign of her at all. Could she have been cleaning the nest or just rearranging things to handle the growing young? We’ll never know. Most birds clean their nests by removing the feces in its mucous sac and carrying it away from the nest, depositing it in someone else’s backyard.

The most unusual oriole nest I ever saw was when we had sheep in our back pasture. The orioles decided to build a unique nest down by the pond by taking the wool caught on the fence where the sheep had been rubbing and weaving it into an exquisite wool nest. To this day it is hanging in the Hay Shack up back, where it can be seen as a reminder of how unique Mother Nature is.

If you happen to be lucky enough to have an oriole nest in your yard or nearby in someone else’s yard, enjoy the beauty of these beautifully colored birds and the uniqueness of their delicately woven nest.