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Painted Bunting

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

April 29, 2024

If I have said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: nature is always changing. For some reason we people always think that everything stays the same. But when it comes to nature, it is never the same and is always changing. Nature is in constant flux. It is how nature works.

I have experienced the constant changing of nature many times. Over the past 40 years of working as a wildlife photographer I have seen this happen over and over again. It is a very familiar tune. Once incredible opportunities to photograph or study a particular critter were so good, then something changes, and suddenly it is no longer available.

So, with that in mind, a little over 20 years ago, I had a wonderful opportunity to meet the “Bunting Lady” in southern Florida. At the time she was running a daycare center but also liked feeding birds. She put out several feeders and had the most amazing birds coming in, including the famed Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris). The male Painted Bunting is often suggested to be the most beautiful bird in North America. This has led to its nickname Nonpareil which is French for “without equal”. And I would have to totally agree with that name. This bird is definitely without equal, for visual splendor.

The Painted Bunting is about the size of a sparrow. The male has a dark blue head, vibrant green back and a blazing red chest, belly, and rump. The female is dull yellow-green without any markings. You might not even notice her because she is so drab. The first time you see the adult male Painted Bunting you can’t believe your eyes. The vibrance of this bird is unlike other birds in North America. Sure, there are plenty of birds in Central and South America that have similar eye-popping color, but for us, this bird is by far the most spectacular.

The Painted Bunting is a shy and secretive bird that is often difficult to see, let alone capture in images. They tend to stay in thick vegetation, only coming out to feed, or during the breeding season, the males sometimes perch in the open to sing their songs to attract mates and defend territories. 

These birds are short distant migrators. They nest in coastal northern Florida, Georgia and into the Carolinas. For winter they move to southern Florida and into the Bahamas. There is a western population that is found in Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma that migrates to Mexico and Central America for winter. This population is declining quickly due to the illegal trapping and selling of this bird in the pet trade. This is a huge problem that pushes this bird closer to extinction. Over all the population of the Painted Bunting is trending downward.

Last week while leading a photo tour across the state of Florida, I got a crazy idea to stop by a location where 20 plus years earlier I had a wonderful opportunity to photograph a Painted Bunting. I figured I had about a 1 percent chance that the Bunting Lady would still be living on the property and that she would still be feeding the buntings or that the buntings were still coming around, because everything in nature changes, right?

When I pulled up to the property, the layout of the house and feeders didn’t match my memory of where I had been 20 years before. I drove slowly by looking for any bird feeders or signs of the buntings. That is when I saw the homeowner in the yard. I quickly pulled in and got out. Unbelievably it was the Bunting Lady. She was still there and amazingly still feeding the buntings.

I was so happy to see her, and we spent a few minutes getting caught up and figuring out just how long it’s been since I was there last. I was thrilled to be invited onto her property to see and photograph the famed Painted Bunting once again.

We set up near one of the bird feeding stations. Since it was the middle of the day the birds weren’t as active as they would be in the morning. We didn’t have to wait too long before three female Painted Buntings showed up at the feeder. A few minutes later we spotted the flash of bright red deep in the shrubs next to the feeder. A few minutes later the brightly colored male made its way to the edge of the shrub. It took one last hop and paused on an open twig in a perfect spot.

The male bunting stayed on the branch with plenty of time to focus and compose a stunning image of such an amazing looking bird. Of course, I couldn’t believe that after all these years, nothing has changed and the Bunting Lady was still enjoying these magical birds and more importantly she was willing to let me stay and photograph the birds. Perhaps not everything changes. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who leads photo tours all over the world. He can be followed on www.instagram.com and www.facebook.com. He can be contacted via his webpage at www.naturesmart.com.  

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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