Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Paint It Green

Spoiler Alert: The blog post is about this bird. I saw it. Sorry to ruin the surprise.
Last week a female Painted Bunting was reported from Evergreen Cemetery in Brighton. While not as gaudy as the males of their species, female Painted Buntings are still a pretty green (one of the only all-green birds in North America), not to mention quite rare in Massachusetts. I had a window of about three hours between classes, carefully planned my bus route, and realized I had just enough time to make the chase. I packed up, rechecked the listserv... and saw that the bird had not been since since early that morning, despite a number of birders looking. Skeptical of my ability to find the bird in my narrow window of opportunity, I called off my expedition. And the bird wasn't seen for the rest of the day, vindicating that decision.

After a few days without reports and stormy weekend, I had assumed the bird had either moved on or passed on, but yesterday morning Massbird once again had an email with the subject line "Painted Bunting Yes." This time I had a full afternoon, and Harold and I set off on the 86 bus into the wilds of Boston.

After a surprisingly quick bus ride and a brief walk, we arrived at the cemetery, where a departing birder directed us to the bunting spot but warned that it had flown out of view recently. We had also heard that the bird was tough to find, hiding in the bushes and staying out of sight, and were prepared for a long search.

When we approached the dumpster marking the general area where the bunting had been seen, a backlit bird flew up out of the brush. Harold and I turned to each other: "Did that bird look weird to you?" "Yeah." "Did it look green?" "Yeah..."

But we hadn't seen exactly where it had landed, and weren't positive it was our target anyway. We began scanning the thickets. I hadn't been looking for 30 seconds when I noticed bright green blob perched on a foxtail a foot of the group right in the open. Got it!
Hard to mistake this gal for anything else
Contrary to reports, the bunting sat in plain view for the entire time we were there (more than half an hour), flying no more than a couple feet to adjust its perch. It was hilarious to watch it feed on various grasses: it was light enough to stand on a single stalk, but not without bending it dramatically. As it plucked seeds it bounced, and when it adjusted position it bungeed up and down wildly.
A precarious perch
Dark grass green above, with green-tinged yellow underparts and a pale eye ring, its color was vivid but clearly for camouflage, unlike than the technicolor hues its male counterparts display. The color would seem to make sense: there's a lot more green vegetation in its normal range than the ranges of its brown female bunting relatives. But like other Passerina buntings, it did flick its tail back and forth compulsively.

The bird was so cooperative that we turned away from it to search the area for sparrows. The search was unsuccessful, but every time we checked back on the bunting it was still there, chowing down. After getting more than our fill, we headed down the road to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. Along the way we ran into another birder who had missed the bunting earlier in the week. We went briefly back to the dumpster, and there it was, right where we had left it.

Acrobatic snacking
The reservoir was covered in ducks, almost entire Ruddy Ducks, comical small divers with spiked-up tails. A pair of Buffleheads were mixed in with over 200 ruddies. For other waterfowl, a small Canada Goose was briefly interesting but we couldn't turn it into a Cackling. On the way pack we picked up a pair of American Coots, then caught the bus back to Harvard Square. Another late fall day, another very nice rarity!

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