Beloved birders! I had a feeling I would one day wake up and decide to chase after a bird, but I had no idea the day would be today. There’s been a Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) in Oakville, Ontario for the past 6 weeks or so and I’ve been to see it twice, and missed it both times after standing in freezing climes for over an hour. I was pretty calm about the whole thing and just assumed that I’d see the Painted Bunting one day in its natural habitat — either in Florida or Texas or somewhere in between. But then this morning I woke up, the sun was shining (for those of you not in Southwestern Ontario, “sun shining” are two words that have not graced us that often this winter/fall; it’s been remarkably grey out here), I picked up my binoculars and decided to drive out to Oakville on a whim. I had a feeling today might be the day.
I travelled by way of Kipling Spit, where I walked for an hour and attempted to find the Harlequin Duck (in vain), but watched a Red-breasted merganser for about twenty minutes, marvelling at the duck’s phenomenal hair, and utterly amazed that this duck, which only a few years ago had seemed so mysterious to me, was now entirely familiar. What continues to surprise me the ease with which our eyes and brains grow accustomed, and the constant effort it takes to remind ourselves that the familiar is worthy of a second look and that it remains spectacular. To marvel at the things we see daily — that might be the single most important lesson birding continues to teach me. The exotic so often lies right there, buried deep in the familiar.
After a bracing 90 minute walk (it’s minus 8 degrees Celsius), I hopped in the car and drove out to Oakville. I was in no hurry to get there, partly because I feared the two scenarios that had already happened: I had stood in the freezing cold, waiting for the bunting, hoping, staring, and seeing absolutely nothing apart from a dozen ravenous chickadees.
I got to the Painted Bunting’s stomping ground only to learn from a group of photographers that the bird had been seen ten minutes prior. By this point it was getting so cold that I nearly hopped back in my car and abandoned the quest, assuming it just wasn’t meant to be. But I waited around, awestruck by a faraway scarlet Northern Cardinal that seemed to light up the bare trees around him. And then I caught up with a White-breasted nuthatch and followed him with my binoculars for a few minutes. At that point there was commotion because of a coyote down below, in the mini-ravine, and a few photographers departed in search of said coyote. And before I knew it forty minutes had gone by, a few more people had assembled (one birder said this was his 14th attempt to find the bunting!), and suddenly, out of nowhere, the Painted Bunting appeared in the brambles, hopped about from branch to branch, and flew down to the ground, where he fed happily on seeds, looking entirely otherworldly:
The bird was more magnificent than I had even imagined. Blue head, sparkly orange breast, lime-green back — it’s the kind of bird I might have drawn as a child only to be told by my parents that the bird wasn’t entirely “realistic”. How utterly magical this avian world is! And how perfect, this insistent first impulse of mine to twitch.