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Friday, May 25, 2012

When Life Imitates Art

Like I said before, beach birding wasn’t the point of our trip down to the Fort Fisher area, although we found some pretty sweet birds. Walking miles and miles through the sand ended up being totally worth it, but by the end of our trek we were too exhausted to find our target species. Instead, the shorebirds we saw would have to slake our lust for our target bird, a bird I’d been longing to see since I was a child flipping through old field guides. The most beautiful bird in North America.

This Whimbrel was nice, but I need a little more color in my birds!

That’s not to say we didn’t encounter the species that day. I’d always heard that the Fort Fisher Aquarium was a great place to find these birds, and it didn’t disappoint. As soon as we pulled up, I heard a song with the rhythm of a Blue Grosbeak but the timbre of a House Finch. As neither of those birds are particularly common in this beachside scrubby habitat, I knew what I was hearing, so I tried a little playback. Immediately, a bird flew in, but not the one I was expecting.

That's it! That's the bird! The one we traveled over 3 hours to find! Oh, wait...

Much to my chagrin, a female Painted Bunting alighted into a nearby bush. Clearly she was attracted to the call – her constantly fluttering wings said that much – but I found it odd that a singing male would totally ignore his competition. In any case, while she wasn’t nearly as gaudy as her counterpart, I thoroughly enjoyed the moss-green bird that paraded mere feet in front of us. This female may have been my lifer Painted Bunting, but it wasn’t the Painted Bunting I was looking for.

It's the Painted Bunting I need for my life list, but not the one I want - or the one I deserve.

Instead, that bird would come later. I’ve heard that the second-best place to find male Painted Buntings is the feeder by the Carolina Beach State Park marina. You’re just supposed to wait around for one to show up, but upon arrival we found this guy shredding up a storm on top of a tall cedar. I only got him in my binocs for a split-second, but he remains my “lifer” male Painted Bunting.

For such an awful look, this is the only one that sat out in the sun for us.

Meandering the expansive dirt trails of Carolina Beach, we accidentally found ourselves in a place we weren’t supposed to be. Turns out, the trails are kind of poorly marked, and somewhere between dodging cactuses and climbing over derelict bridges, we realized we’d come to an unmaintained part of the trail that was supposed to be closed. But it was Painted Bunting heaven – we watched an immature male sing from the top of an old snag, just starting to grow in his red breast. A fully mature individual graced up with his presence by hopping on the ground in front of us, giving me my (at the time) best look at a Painted Bunting ever!

It would end up being my third best look ever by the next day... but, I mean,  Painted Bunting, man!

After hearing the tantalizing calls of Common Nighthawks and Chuck-wills-widows, we decided to call it a night. The weather had other ideas though, and after enduring a night of torrential downpour by sleeping in the car (not fun, I promise you), we decided to test our luck on an overcast morning. At a recently burned area near the Carolina Beach marina, I heard that tell-tale song once again, and tried a little playback to see what would respond. This time, a fully-adult male Painted Bunting swooped in low and gave us awesome looks.

Go ahead, cast Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt - cuz this is as good as it gets!

Even my other brother, an ardent non-birder, couldn’t help but acknowledge that this ridiculous-looking bird was kind of awesome. Time and time again, the bunting would alight on a branch and inch closer to us, trying to check us out, until finally he was right above our heads, singing his eccentrically random song. Finally, after twenty years of wanting to see this bird in person, I’d achieved my goal – that perfect Painted Bunting experience.

I'm Indiana Jones, and this is my Holy Grail. Which makes Carolina Beach my Petra, makes James my Sallah,
and that random lady at the front office like Eliza Doody or something.

To me, the Painted Bunting is the Elton John of the bird world – its song is pretty good, but it looks entirely extravagant, to a ridiculous extent. Thankfully, after all the effort we went through to get this bird, it didn’t go breakin’ my heart. But we had to let the sun set on it (mostly because it was cloudy that day). So we headed home a little early, content with our views of the tiny dancers, but not completely satisfied – the light didn’t benefit us during the trip, and the only photos we got ended up with were in bad light on a cloudy background. Oh well. I guess that’s why they call it the blues.

Is that enough Elton John puns? Can I go home now? Good.

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