Nature's Painted Bird

I could hear the bird's raspy but melodic song as soon as I climbed out of my car at the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area near Branson. By the time I reached the wooden viewing deck I could plainly see it atop a large Eastern red cedar only 100 feet away. I quickly trained my binoculars on the male painted bunting, hoping he would remain long enough for me to study him.

After showing the cooperative bird to my son and daughter, I glanced around and saw a handful of tourists watching us. They were clearly curious about what we were looking at. I offered the binoculars to the woman closest to me and said, "Would you like to see a really spectacular bird?" She took the glasses, raised them to her eyes, gasped deeply in amazement and asked with a smile, "What is it?"

I explained that painted buntings are southern cousins of indigo buntings, common summer residents of forest edges throughout Missouri. She lived in Springfield and had never seen the bird there. Although painted buntings have sometimes been seen in the Springfield area, their primary range lies to the south, along the Arkansas border. More are present in the southwestern counties of Barry, Stone, Taney and Ozark, where their preferred glade and brushy field habitats abound.

As I continued my spur-of-the-moment minilecture on basic bunting biology, the bird flew a short distance to the top of another cedar where he continued his serenade. Some of the comments issued from beneath binoculars were: "It looks like a tiny parrot!" "I'd expect to see it somewhere in the tropics." "It seems so out of place in this dry, brushy place."

The comparison to a small parrot is understandable because of the bright tropical colors. But in a detailed photo, you can clearly see that the bird lacks any semblance of a hooked parrotlike bill. The plumage appears much like an artist's palette with feathers. Adult males are bluish-violet on the head, green on the back and red on the rump and underparts. Females and year-old males are yellowish green.

As a photographer and bird nut I've long been intrigued by the most colorful of all Missouri song birds. For years I searched for this often elusive bird within its restricted range in southwest Missouri. Brushy fields near Blue Eye, roadsides at Protem, rocky points along the shoreline of Bull Shoals Lake and high glades along the Glade Top Trail south of Ava all proved fruitless. When I heard about a couple at Bull Shoals who were attracting painted buntings to their feeders on a regular basis during the summer, I made plans to visit.

Carol and Ellis Barton of Isabella look out their window over a field to a wonderful view of the lake. The dense thicket of cedar, winged elm and sassafras in the old field borders a more mature stand of red and white oaks. Studies in Missouri in the early 1980s suggest this is prime painted bunting habitat.

On my first visit I saw no birds and took no photos. During the next few summers I made several trips in an attempt to take definitive photos of the birds.

The four to six hours comprising a morning session in the photo blind were long but never boring. Flurries of activity ensued as indigo buntings, blue jays and brown-headed cowbirds visited. The monotony was curbed by raiding squirrels and eastern chipmunks and by Carol's voice from the patio offering a glass of iced tea.

The first sign of action was usually the distant, pleasing warble of the male bunting that sat high in a post oak. Within minutes the bird was visible in the thicket, working toward the feeders and my waiting camera. As with most wildlife, he rarely cooperated. He landed on my perch but not quite long enough. He was partially hidden by an elm leaf. His head was turned just wrong. Murphy's Law was alive and well and living in my photo blind.

Then, in an instant, in an act of kindness or sympathy, he cooperated. My motor driven camera whirred into action and film burned. Compose and shoot, compose and shoot. In less than ten seconds he was gone. The basic scenario played out on subsequent trips during that season and the following, and slowly I amassed a publishable collection of photos.

Painted buntings arrive in Missouri in late April or early May. Look for them and count yourself among the lucky if you glimpse one. Consider yourself blessed if you, like the Bartons of Bull Shoals Lake, have them living in your backyard. In Louisiana, where painted buntings and Cajun coexist, they have picked up a fitting colloquial name. There they are sometimes called the "nonpareil" or, loosely translated, the "unparalleled." I think the name fits.