MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - When I've shown the handful of photographs I have of male Painted Buntings to friends and family members who aren't into birding, a common question is, "Is that real?" It's a natural response: The mix of bright blue, red, green and yellow on the male Painted Bunting looks more like how my granddaughter would color a bird in her coloring book than real life.
But they are gloriously real. The French sometimes aptly call the bird "Nonpareil", which means "without equal."
The Painted Bunting is a relatively rare bird in Alabama, with a few dozen sightings around the state each year. But when you do see one -- especially the adult male -- you're not likely to forget it.
I saw my first Painted Bunting in Alabama in April 2016, not long after I started birding seriously. It was during an Alabama Ornithological Society meeting on Dauphin Island, perhaps the best place in the state to see these beautiful birds. (See photo gallery.) The island is a haven for the migrating birds that often arrive there tired and hungry in the spring, often in mixed flocks of birds that include Indigo Buntings, Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks and Blue Grosbeaks.
In the United States, the Painted Bunting has two separate and distinct breeding areas. The largest stretches from western Mississippi to Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. A smaller and declining eastern population is primarily limited to coastal North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and North Florida. Some of the eastern group winter in South Florida, while most of the birds winter in Southern Mexico, Central America and Cuba.
Notice that Alabama is sandwiched between these two breeding grounds. Most species maps I have seen do not show Alabama as a summer site for Painted Buntings. But a few birds have minds of their own, and sightings of birds in the summer do occur in Alabama.
I have seen three Painted Buntings in Alabama so far this year. The first was in June in Marengo County on a Birmingham Audubon Society field trip led by Greg Harber and John Trent. This was a colorful adult male, and while we had great views of it, I managed only a so-so photo. (See photo gallery.)
Then last week I went to look for a pair of Painted Buntings just west of Montgomery. Like any amateur bird photographer, I was hoping for another vividly colored male. I found a male, but not the stunning adult male known for its multi-colors.
The male Painted Bunting does not get its bright colors during its first year. Instead, the male looks almost identical to the adult female Painted Bunting -- green on its back, and yellow-green on its underside. These are still beautiful birds, but not as stunning as the fully adult males. It is only in its second fall that males take on their vivid four-color plumage.
So if the 12-14-month-old male essentially looks like the adult female, how did I know what I was seeing?
The first-year male is capable of reproducing, and unlike the female, spends time sitting high in trees or on limbs calling in an attempt to try to attract a mate. (See photo gallery.) I've read that some succeed, but not as regularly as older males. Since the birds are usually secretive and spend much of their time in thick bushes, this singing behavior offers a good opportunity to see the normally hard-to-spot birds. (I also briefly saw a second bird that, based on its green back and lack of calling, I believe to be a female Painted Bunting.)
I hope to one day get that perfect picture of an adult male Painted Bunting. What I have so far were either taken in horrible lighting or are distant zooms. But I still treasure every second I've spent watching these awe-inspiring birds.
Help AOS and eBird, and possibly win a trip to Dauphin Island.
I serve on a committee of the Alabama Ornithological Society that is seeking to improve bird species reports from areas of Alabama that are under-reported on eBird, which collects data from birders to improve the science of ornithology.
AOS has partnered with eBird to increase the number of complete checklists of birds from 16 counties in Alabama with low numbers of checklists and bird species.
Every complete checklist entered from one of the counties AOS targets (see list below) would provide a chance for the eBirder filing it to win a prize. The more complete checklists, the more chances to win. eBird will monitor the lists and randomly select winners.
The contest is not just for AOS members or even just Alabamians -- anyone who files a complete checklist beginning May 1 and continuing through the remainder of 2017 would be eligible. eBird will inform winners.
There will be five winners. First prize would be two-nights lodging on Dauphin Island during April or October 2018 when bird migration on the island is at its height. In addition, all five winners would receive a free year's subscription to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's highly respected Birds of North America website.
Please note that only a "complete" checklist from these counties will qualify as an entry. Complete checklists are those in which the birder attempts to identify all species seen or heard in a given area. See the Alabama Ornithological Society website for more information.
Alabama Ornithological Society
The bird club for Alabama. Sections include Alabama Bird Records Committee, Blakely Island, Alabama bird checklist, conservation, bird count results, pelagic birding.
The targeted counties, and species in them as of 2-17-17, are: Bibb, 140; Blount, 144; Chilton, 129; Choctaw, 122; Coffee, 133; Conecuh, 131; Crenshaw, 104; Fayette, 111; Greene, 133; Lamar, 96; Marion, 118; Pickens, 137; Pike, 125; Randolph, 139; Walker, 139; and Washington, 147.
-- Birmingham Audubon Society: While most of the state's birding groups take the summer off from organized field trips, not so Birmingham Audubon. On July 29, the destination will be Autauga and Lowndes counties where the target birds will include the impressive Swallow-Tailed Kite. On Aug. 5, the group will head to the Greensboro area. Each of these will be a free, all-day trip that is open to both members and non-members. For details, visit here.
-- The Alabama Birding Trails web page has a comprehensive list of upcoming birding and nature-related activities around the state that is much more detailed than space allows here. Most of the activities are open to the public and many are free. See it at: alabamabirdingtrails.com
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for WSFA 12 News. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org. To see other columns, go to Ken's page.