2015-02-19 / Nature

Surprise Visitors Brighten Winter Gloom

By Jack Kelly

A male Painted Bunting, left, and a male Lapland Longspur. (Photos by Jack Kelly) A male Painted Bunting, left, and a male Lapland Longspur. (Photos by Jack Kelly) Winter’s harsh weather and snow can cause foraging problems for avian species. Backyard feeding stations are a welcome oasis of food and water for many birds, and offer their admirers a window into the natural world. One Newport County neighborhood was recently visited by two special guests that delighted the local bird watching community.

A Painted Bunting made a surprise appearance on the feeders maintained by Jim and Loretta Clarkson. According to Jim, “I was in the kitchen and I looked out into the backyard and there it was, so beautifully colored that it stood out against the other birds.” This is not the first time that the Clarksons have hosted such a rare and colorful guest. “It was just about this time last year when one appeared at our feeders and spent a few days here. It was really amazing to see such a bird during the cold winter months.” The bunting is sharing the feeders with a multitude of other hungry birds and seems quite at home.

Painted Bunting sightings are fairly rare in the North, as they nest and breed in the southeastern United States, along the Gulf Coast, northern Mexico, and parts of the American Southwest. This breed winters along the Gulf Coast of the United States and Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.

This diminutive species has a body length of 5.5 inches and a wingspan of 8.75 inches. The males are brightly colored with a blue head or “helmet,” Cardinal red underparts, as well as throat, rump, and eye-ring, and a neon green back. Painted Buntings have been prized for centuries as caged songbirds and thousands are still captured annually in Cuba and Mexico. It is a tireless singer, even in the heat of the day, when most birds rest. This species’ population is declining in the American Southeast due mostly to loss of habitat and development, but its numbers seem to be stable across the other reaches of its range.

It is unknown how this fixture of warmer climates found its way to snowy Rhode Island, but for the Clarksons, this is a very special visitor. “We lost our daughter two years ago, and now this bird has visited us twice; maybe it’s her telling us everything is all right.”

Not far from the Clarkson’s residence, an unidentified homeowner put down 20 pounds of bird seed in the driveway and yard. This bounty of food attracted scores of hungry sparrows, juncos, Cardinals, Blue Jays, and others. For local birders, who kept a respectful distance from private property, this was a bonanza of epic proportions.

Mixed in with the foraging birds were Fox Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, and one remarkable bird, a Lapland Longspur. This hardy species breeds in Arctic regions and winters across a broad swath of the lower 48 states, usually gathering in large flocks to feed among farm fields and prairies.

This unique bird has a body length of 6.25 inches and a wingspan of 11.5 inches. During mating season, the male’s plumage develops a black crown, face and throat, as well as a rust red nape. Its supercilium, underparts, and outermost rectrix become bright white.

This species' preferred nesting habitats are slowly shrinking. It occupies lower, wet environments, with higher dry areas for its nesting sites. These areas are being diminished as warmer Arctic temperatures allow shrubby plants to spread farther north.

For many local birders, these surprise visitors were just what the doctor ordered in the middle of a cold, snowy winter. They are a reminder of the approaching warmer seasons and spring migration along the Atlantic Flyway.

Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others.

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