The Elusive Painted Bunting
I was in Florida last week, the freakiest of the southeastern states. Its peninsular shape, dipping so seductively into the neotropic Caribbean, suggest a haul of bizarre and fascinating birds found nowhere else on the continent. All true of course. But not only is Florida’s native birdlife pretty amazing, it also hosts strange exotics; species brought here accidentally and on purpose that for one reason or another managed to break free of the bonds of captivity and make a new life on foreign shores, with a more or less detrimental impact on the indigenous species (isn’t that always the way it is?).
This uneasy non-truce, however, means that birders have it pretty good down there, and there’s probably no place on the planet that’s more akin to a free-flying aviary than the Sunshine State. It goes without saying that one can rack up a pretty decent day’s birding without working too hard at it, which is precisely what I found myself doing as I was stuck at a resort in the Orlando area with limited access to a car. I don’t play golf and I’m not one for laying out by the pool so my Florida related activities are almost exclusively exploration related and even though I was hardly at what you’d call a wildlife refuge, it was Florida. You takes what you gets.
So I spent a lot of time wandering up and down a walking path that meandered past a few artificial lakes filled with the usual assortment of fancy wading birds and wintering Coots. It was along one of these little ponds that I found the most productive stretch of brush in the whole of my little developed corner of Orange County, Florida. It was consistently packed with Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Gray Catbirds, a single Common Ground-Dove, and quite possible the most beautiful bird in Florida (and that includes exotics) a male Painted Bunting.
I was packing heat, my new 400mm lens. This was the moment I had been waiting for. And it was was here, standing in the sun while increasingly incredulous onlookers passed me by, that I realized that having a wonderful bird and a wonderful lens do not necessarily a wonderful photo make. To whit…
For such a stunning and awe-inducing bird, it did everything it possibly could to stay in the densest portion of this little hedgerow. This made any sort of lingering look – and those are really the sort you want when dealing with a Painted Bunting – not to mention any attempt at photography, nearly impossible. Even a little pishing sent the Palm Warblers into fits, buzzing around my head like cartoon stars following a traumatic head injury, but this amazing patchwork bird stayed obscured by the blackberry brambles in which it preferred to implant itself.
Maybe this time?
I noted that the bird itself was working in a particular direction, and got ahead of it. Carefully navigating the impressive fire ant hill, I plopped myself down on the sidewalk. I waited. I had nothing better to do, after all. And slowly, slowly, it came to me, pausing on the edge of the higher grasses and nibbling at seeds.
Until finally, at long last, it perched out in the open – in the sun, even – and I was able to really enjoy this Painted Bunting, one of the southeast’s, and arguably North America’s, most beautiful birds.
Patience pays off and Florida delivers again, even in the most unexpected places.