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Initial Challenges with Filming

The oriole is a bird that you pretty much always hear in Singapore and sometimes you catch a glimpse of their bright yellow plumage when they fly from the canopy of one tree to another.

The height of their nest makes it difficult to study their nests from the ground. So literature on their breeding behaviour is surprisingly limited for such a common and widespread bird.

The difference in appearance between male and female oriole is very subtle. However, they do not sound exactly alike. The challenge I had at the start of filming was to identify the individuals correctly which would allow me to interpret their behaviours accurately.

Orioles are known to build decoy nests to trick predators. So when I was filming the nest I couldn’t be 100% sure if the nest was active until the nestlings hatch after 2-3 weeks. That said, I was confident it was an active nest as the female spent so much time hunkered down on the nest during what I calculated to be the incubation period.

Black-naped Oriole
Black-naped Oriole

Goals and Objectives for Filming

My goal was to study the breeding success of the orioles.

Right from the get-go, I needed to get a handle on the basics of their breeding season ranging from behaviour to the duration of each stage from nest building to fledging.

I was curious to explore what factors would contribute to the success or failure of the nest. So figuring out where the orioles went to collect nesting material and food was one of the first considerations.

I needed to document their natural behaviour up close and so gaining the trust of both orioles was vital to the success of the production.

I wanted to film moments of intimacy between the oriole pair and only by becoming intimately familiar with their daily routines, their regular activity, and interactions would I have the opportunity to do so.

I had a strong desire for the production to be more than a nest cam project, and so I had to film their activity away from the nest to make their story more complete.

I had to learn more about the predation risk the orioles’ nest faces and observe how they deal with it.

Black-naped Oriole
Black-naped Oriole

The Filmmaking Journey

The orioles built their nest 2.5 meters behind our apartment at eye level – which was unbelievably good luck. So all I had to do was set up a hide quickly without causing any disturbance.

Two rooms had a view on the nest. I first noticed nesting activity from my daughter’s bedroom, but setting up a hide there wasn’t convenient.

My other option was a storage room with an incredible head-on view of the nest. The only issue was that the room was full of our daughter’s outgrown baby stuff – we’re talking a stroller, cot and car seat – you name it, it was in there! So that had to be cleared out.

The other thing to deal was a folding door which got in the way of where I could put my tripod. So that had to go too. All without causing disturbance to the orioles at the nest which meant I had to time my activity when they were away from the nest.

After clearing out some of my daughter’s junk and taking that door off, I put up a temporary blind using a lungi from India. I bought it as a memento from a trip with my sister 10 years before and it finally come to some use.

I do have camouflage scrim, but as this is urban Singapore I didn’t see the point. It was the back of a building, and it worked perfectly. It was lightweight, so it was easy to gaffer tape to the window frame and wrap around the lens.

I ensured that I introduced the camera while the orioles were away from the nest. And I was careful to avoid disturbing their activity at all times.

Setting up a makeshift hide in the storage room helped me to establish a baseline activity of the orioles around their nest.

I could see that the nest was attracting attention from other birds. A pair of sunbirds came to steal nesting material while the orioles were away. And a hornbill visited the nest to inspect progress.

Filming the Black-naped Oriole Nest

Lessons Learned from Filming

Filming one subject over a concentrated period of time very intensively really honed my wildlife filmmaking skills. I was able to eke subtle nuances out of the story as I was going through the process.

I learned a lot from scientific articles. My literature research turned up a fantastic study from Taiwan. From that I was able to create a schedule of when I could expect the eggs to hatch and the nestlings to fledge. It really helped to plan my production.

I logged some of the daily activity on a white board. It was less a detailed survey and more a list of highlights to help update the script and shot list.

I was able to recognise the song of the male oriole from his dawn chorus. He’d sing every morning behind our apartment. The male’s loud territorial calls were a similar pitch to his song. He would perch a few meters away from the nest – often on the window ledge of my daughter’s bedroom.

There was a subtle difference in the contact calls between male and female. The female was much less vocal than the male, but she used a higher pitch to communicate with the male.

The physical difference between the male and the female started to become apparent after filming them for a while. The breeding male had a brighter yellow plumage than the female. The male kept his plumage in tiptop condition during the breeding season. The male would preen more often than the female. The female was more preoccupied with nest building and incubating the eggs. However, both would preen close to the nest.

I only took a small number of photos of the nest-building. The nest was so close, that the sound of the shutter was noticeable in the alert reaction of the female oriole. As I wanted to keep disturbance of the nest to a minimum, I focused on filming instead. Having the opportunity to film the nest was an unforgettable experience.

Spoiler alert: Sadly nest predation did take place. Nothing anyone could do would have stopped the male hornbill from taking the eggs. He had been to the nest 3 times before. He knew what he was doing and what to expect.

On the one hand I felt deep sadness for the orioles, but on the other hand I couldn’t help admire the intelligence and persistence of the hornbills.

I was most looking forward to seeing the parental care that the orioles would give their young. As a parent myself I really wanted to film that behaviour. So that was the biggest disappointment, especially as that was only a few days away. The orioles were so close to success…

Black-naped Oriole
Black-naped Oriole

Reasons for Optimism

Then an amazing thing happened. The day after the nest was abandoned, I saw a juvenile oriole feeding on a palm tree in front of our apartment. Although they can remain in juvenile plumage for more than 2 years, the fact that it was accompanied by both adults, led me to believe it could have been from their first brood of the year.

So it’s possible the nest could have been their second brood. They might have already had some success from their breeding attempts this year.

They went on to build another nest away from the apartment which was successful. It appears as if they learned not to build nests near human habitation where there is a risk of predation from hornbills. Two months after the nest predation, the oriole pair brought a fledgling to feed in front of my apartment.

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