The Bird-Vangelist

The Face That Launched a Thousand Trips

I’m often asked how I got started as a bird nut.  The long answer dawdles through childhood and includes cleaning snow off a backyard feeder.  Today – we like short answers, so two words…PAINTED BUNTING.

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Spying one electrifies an outing. Chatting birders are hushed, eyes and optics trained, cameras clicking in a scene more fitting a red carpet walk than birding.

Legend has it Helen of Troy had a ‘face that launched a thousand ships’. Our quest to see this bunting became the stuff of legends too – a face that launched a thousand trips.

When we started, we were clueless, knowing nothing about the birds or how to find them, armed with ‘70’s hand me down binoculars and oblivious to the ‘bird-o-sphere’ – the people and websites packed with what we needed for a sighting.

Our initial sorties are better classified as ‘nature walks’ than birding – drives down Loop Road outside Everglades City and Black Point Drive in Merritt Island, walks through Corkscrew Swamp. Beautiful scenery and an occasional bird. Definitely no Painted Buntings; though we got a Painted Bunting postcard from Corkscrew’s giftshop. From what we could see, we were at the right place at the wrong time.

The axiom, “A winner never quits and a quitter never wins” was drummed into my head from childhood through my 20’s. Despite the bunting quest reaching the 2-year mark, we were determined to be ‘winners’. Our next tactic was going to birding festivals – more structure, more birders, and knowledgeable guides. And while we remained undaunted, there was a gnawing at the back of our minds, would our quest end in vain?

Sagging spirits were re-energized by one festival guide assuring us we were, “Guaranteed to see Painted Buntings in Jekyll Island. There’s a great birding festival and you can’t miss.”

The six-hour drive to Jekyll was filled with optimism and anticipation – dashed early the following morning. Beach-goer’s not birders filled the Hampton Inn’s breakfast tables. Anyone with a camera was there for Driftwood Beach – purported as one of the best photo sites on the East Coast.

The ‘great festival’ was all but cancelled, a victim of a delayed opening of the new convention center. The few remaining walks were led by sympathetic locals who didn’t want the fools who actually showed up to be disappointed on what was likely their first trip to the Island. We were encouraged to take advantage of Driftwood Beach.

Buntings? Most had migrated south but if any were left we should check the feeder at the campground. Being as close as we’ve ever been, we staked out the feeders an entire afternoon and were back the next morning. Our last day on the island and the Painted Bunting outlook was bleak. Around 1:30 PM, less than 30-minutes left on our departure clock what was likely the last pair of Painted Buntings in Georgia came in for a bath. EUREKA – my wife and I would not die a ‘bunting-less couple’.

All told, seeing our first ‘Paints’ took about 2 and ½ years. Somewhere in all this questing, we were rewired. Long drives to tiny towns became interesting – cities less so. Odd hours and researching habits of target species became challenging – not boring. In short, unashamed bird nuts.

Was it worth it?  To see a ‘Paint’ light up a room – I’d do it again in a heartbeat.


Fall 2017  

Two Yellow Throated Warblers in the oak canopy tell a different story than TV weathermen yammering about heat index and the summer shower patterns.  The mercury may be headed for the 90’s but FALL MIGRATION IS STARTING

The pair flit from branch to branch, their yellow and black glows in the morning sunlight.  Their breathtaking beauty kindles the same warm flash as seeing old friends, the summer’s layoff intensifies a soft spark to electric jolt.

Fall migration is so many ways the opposite of its spring counterpart.  Spring is frenetic…Cardinals crooning, females eyeing males in fresh breeding plumage.  All choreographed to nature’s silent stopwatch.  Fall is less rushed, lacking the hormonal rage of spring.  A ‘brunch feel’, meandering through August, September and early October.  Spring is ‘breakfast on the run’, starting in April and a memory by early May.

Regardless of seasons, the walk is about the birds.  The sense of discovery I get focusing binos on these magnificent creatures.  My entire being smiles.  Don’t get me wrong, nature is a big part of the experience.  Butterflies, trees, and streams drain modern life’s tension. Our time together is short, warblers off to the next tree and next bug, people off to the next bird, Titmice heard chattering up the trail.  My warbler friends are most likely passing through, roughly the half way point to their Central American winter home.  Some stay, most keep going.

The hopeless romantic in me wonders if I’ll see them on their return trip next spring – with fresh feathers and lookin’ for love.

Florida is graced with two migrations, each with different tones and rhythms, nature providing a different backdrop.  Two opportunities to see incomparable diversity, color and movement 


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