Searching for the Rainbow Flyer
Treasured male painted buntings sport riotous plumage.
By Cheryl Lyn Dybas
It’s high noon on a sizzling mid-May day in South Texas. A veil of humidity hangs in the air, nearly obscuring rows of Texas ebony trees. These shaggy trees with dark green crowns, important members of the South Texas brushland plant community, line a path at Quinta Mazatlan. “Quinta” — as locals call this urban sanctuary in McAllen — is less than 15 miles from the Mexican border and just minutes from McAllen International Airport.
It might as well be a world away.
The stunning 1930s Spanish hacienda, once a private estate, became an environmental education center several years ago. Tropical gardens are surrounded by native Lower Rio Grande Valley thorn forest, home to birds of every color of the rainbow, including our quarry: the painted bunting (Passerina ciris), known as North America’s most beautiful bird for the male’s shimmering palette of blue, green, yellow and red iridescent feathers.
“Almost every birder who comes to South Texas has painted buntings at the top of his or her list,” says our guide to the region’s birds, Tim Brush, who’s an ornithologist at nearby University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg and author of Nesting Birds of a Tropical Frontier: The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
“That doesn’t mean they’re easy to find.”
Painted buntings arrive in spring to nest across most of Texas, spending several months in the state. They depart again in the fall to make their winter home south of the border, with a few hanging around South Texas for the season. They pass through the Valley both coming and going.
Quinta is our second stop of the morning, following a pre-dawn start at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park about 15 miles away. Although bright orange Altamira orioles had put on a show at the park, flying into and out of distinctive U-shaped, hanging nests just yards above, we’d seen no painted buntings.
Our luck is about to change.
In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, famed for its migrating spring songbirds, “painted buntings are common migrants but uncommon breeders in the area’s thorn forests,” Brush says. “Breeding numbers vary from year to year, with more birds seen and heard in wetter years.”
With this spring one of the wettest on record for South Texas, where are the buntings?
“Usually I’ll hear a male working his way along a forest edge,” Brush says, “singing regularly in an attempt to attract a female. I’ve heard them this year, so they’re here somewhere.”
As if on cue, he points to a feeding station that’s stocked with seeds and orange halves. At the amphitheater along Quinta’s Wooded Meadow Trail, Brush lifts his binoculars to peer at a sparrow-sized bird with crown-to-tail lime-green plumage.
“It’s a female painted bunting,” says Brush, looking around for a male. Lovely as the female might be, to those spotting a painted bunting for the first time, the male is still the Holy Grail.
We’re closer, but still, no male today.
Listen before looking
That evening, it was time to read up on painted buntings. The next day would bring new attempts to find a male at other Valley sites.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley includes four Texas counties — Starr, Hidalgo, Willacy and Cameron — in the Tamaulipan thornscrub (also known as Brush Country) ecoregion. Quinta Mazatlan and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park are in Hidalgo County. The climate is subtropical, with rainfall across the region usually sporadic. The area is a meet-up for western desert, northern, coastal and tropical species.
During spring and fall migration, it’s best to look for buntings where seeds are abundant, such as in weedy fields or near bird feeders, according to Brush. In summer, they’re most likely found in edge habitat with dense understory.
Painted buntings’ habit of remaining in deep brush makes them hard to spot, but the species’ chip call and the rambling songs of males give the birds away.
When seen, this rainbow flyer can be misidentified.
“People often think he’s an escaped tropical bird,” Brush says.
Curse of beauty
Painted buntings are declining throughout their range as a result of habitat loss, parasitism of their nests by cowbirds and trapping on their wintering grounds south of the border for use in the pet trade. They’re often caught and sold illegally as cage birds.
In the early 19th century, thousands of live male painted buntings were shipped to Europe for sale. (The trade was banned in the U.S. in the early 20th century, but is still legal in certain countries.) An estimated 700 painted buntings were trapped within a few days in May 2003 at a single location in Cuba. In the July 2011 issue of the journal Conservation Genetics, biologists reported that 100,000 painted buntings may have been trapped in Mexico between 1984 and 2000.
It’s an odd twist of fate for the painted bunting, known as a "nonpareil" or "without equal" in French.
Decades earlier, ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote in his Life Histories of North American Birds that when it comes to describing “the avian gem we know as the painted bunting, Spanish seems more appropriate [than English], because in Spanish it is ‘mariposa’: ‘butterfly.’ This bird, in its dazzling brilliance, seems hardly a creature of feathers at all, but rather a dancing butterfly.”
East doesn’t meet West
There are, in fact, two painted buntings: an eastern and a western subspecies.
The eastern painted bunting (Passerina ciris ciris) breeds in the coastal southeastern U.S. from North Carolina south to Florida. Eastern birds usually spend their winters in southern Florida, plus the Keys, the Bahamas and Cuba.
Western painted buntings (Passerina ciris pallidior), the birds of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, nest from Texas and Louisiana north to Kansas and Oklahoma and west to Arizona and New Mexico. Western painted buntings flock to western Mexico for the winter.
Oddly, it seems, the two subspecies never mix. Eastern painted buntings appear to remain on their side of an imaginary line, while western painted buntings do the same, on both breeding and wintering grounds.
To find a male painted bunting
Somewhere out there in the Texas scrublands is a male painted bunting. Maybe today will be the day.
We drive to the far reaches of Starr County, through endless fields of sunflowers. Their yellow heads reach upward toward something even taller: wind turbines, erected in the fields in recent years. The turbines are part of a 200-megawatt wind farm that will funnel most of its power to Austin, 300 miles to the north. Residents have mixed views about the coming of the wind farm. Some worry about its effect on migrating birds; others believe it’s an economic necessity.
Another turn in the road and a dusty nine miles later,
we arrive at a 300-acre wildlife sanctuary, Santa Clara Ranch. Santa Clara offers birders and photographers access to two morning-light and two evening-light “dugout” blinds near small waterholes, as well as an above-ground blind
“The ranch is located on virgin brushland,” says owner Beto Gutierrez, setting up a folding chair in one of the afternoon blinds. “That’s what attracts so many native and migrating species.”
He listens intently for a moment.
“Hear that? It’s a male painted bunting singing from the top of one of the thornbushes out front.”
A whir of fluttering wings, a blur of color and — finally! — a rainbow-hued bird lands alongside a nearby waterhole. Dipping its head into the pond again and again, the male painted bunting takes a bath, throwing water in every direction. Droplets catch the sun, illuminating his lime green, indigo blue, scarlet red and citrine yellow feathers.
“Every birder and photographer who comes here wants a painted bunting, first and foremost,” whispers Gutierrez, as the bird continues to splash in the waterhole, reveling in the water’s coolness on this 90-plus-degree day.
The next day, a few miles from Santa Clara, painted buntings emerge again from the treeline. The twin ranches of Campos Viejos and Dos Venadas also offer guests the opportunity to see and photograph birds and other wildlife during spring migration season. Campos Viejos covers 1,000 acres of native Texas brush habitat; Dos Venadas, 370 acres.
“Most people visit in April and May,” says Campos Viejos owner Hardy Jackson. “It gets pretty hot by June. But Campos Viejos and Dos Venadas can be at their best then. Everything dries out, and the birds and other wildlife are constantly at the waterholes. For some animals, our waterholes are their only sources of drinking water.”
Hoping to outrun rainclouds on the horizon, Jackson escorts visitors from a dugout morning blind to a smorgasbord lunch at the lodge, then to an above-ground afternoon blind perched near a waterhole. Sprinkles of rain dot the pond’s surface. Jackson is almost ready to call it a day when the sweet notes of a painted bunting drift from a nearby thornbush.
The bird lands at the water’s edge, then hops in, the better to clean Texas dust from his feathers. His rainbow hues are reflected in the pond.
“We hope the birds and other wildlife will be here for decades to come,” says Dos Venadas owner Steve Bentsen.
In the meantime, the dry South Texas brushlands — enjoying the season’s rains — hum with life in riotous colors, especially those of a bird without equal.