One of the biggest bird stories this winter has been the record number of Painted Buntings on the Cape, of which there have been upwards of nine individuals. The common-sense guess for the number of Painted Buntings on Cape Cod is of course zero – this colorful southern species breeds north barely into North Carolina and winters in tropical climes. This is a bird that should live the entirety of its natural life without seeing so much as frost on the windshield, never mind snow and ice.
So when a Harwich resident saw a male Painted Bunting among the Song Sparrows at her feeding station last month she knew she had a special bird. But she didn’t know just how special until something she hadn’t noticed before caught her eye.
But first, a bit about the buntings. They are, above all, astoundingly beautiful. The males are a patchwork of solid, improbably, perhaps unnecessarily intense colors – an electric blue head, neon chartreuse back, belly and rump redder than the brightest cardinal. The females and young males are all green, perhaps with envy at the gaudy colors of the adult males. In all plumages they are often mistaken for escaped cage birds when they turn up in people’s yards.
Records of Painted Buntings wintering at feeders on Cape Cod go back at least to the 50s, but as recently as the 90s, they were a real rarity, considered occasional in spring. Now, at least one or two is almost expected each fall and winter here. It’s hard to say with certainty how much more common they really are, since we are more likely to hear about them these days with all of the digital cameras, Facebook groups, and other digital forums devoted to birds. But this year is clearly an outlier – there have been almost as many Painted Buntings on the Cape over the last month as there have been total over the last thirty years. I suspect a group of migrants bound from Florida to the Caribbean got caught up in a northerly flow offshore and were deposited here sometime this fall, and have been gradually finding feeders ever since.
I suppose it’s time to circle back to my teaser. The woman hosting this bunting, who I’ll just call Susan to throw the rare bird stalkers off the scent (you know who you are), noticed what looked like a colored band on its leg a few days ago. She sent the photos to me, and it was instantly clear this bird had been color banded by researchers. Some googling brought me to a project of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The project website showed that the half red, half yellow band we saw meant the bird was banded in North Carolina. The color and position of two other bands, one gray and one yellow, uniquely identify the individual bird. I am waiting to hear back from the researchers on a more detailed history of this individual, but I suspect it was banded during the breeding season in one of the southern counties of North Carolina in the last few years.
It’s hard to reckon the sheer improbability of having not just a male Painted Bunting at your feeder, but of having one of research significance. My cross-town neighbor, Susan, has indeed won the rare bird lottery. Meanwhile, back at my house, I guess I’ll just get back to staring bleakly out at the browns and grays of my more pedestrian winter feeder birds, a single tear wetting the glass of my binocular lens. Not really – I’ll be fine. But I did add a feeder offering mostly white millet in hopes of luring in a Painted Bunting of my own – it’s their favorite, and with how many are out there, you might want to do the same.