Note: I'm currently in Myrtle Beach, SC, and this all happened at Huntington Beach SP's feeders.
The older couple paused, binoculars in hand, eagerly scanning the scrub. I strained to spot any motion, any indication that he hadn't flown off.
Conditioned by the cardinals at the feeder, I figured that this splash of red was nothing more. But wait- was that blue? An azure head contrasted the red, and my heart skipped a beat.
"I JUST SAW HIM, HE WAS BEHIND THAT OAK!" I sputtered, hoping they would believe me. Of course, he did not show himself. It wasn't enough. Some birders might count it, I guess. But this bird was special. I couldn't count it and leave it at that. I also eagerly wanted to show it to these people. But alas, it seemed to have flushed.
People came and went, and I asked almost every single one if they were looking for him too. Most stayed for a minute or two; a few hung around longer. But I waited. And waited. I watched the Red-winged Blackbirds attack the feeders in small gangs. I watched the bossy female cardinals squabble. I watched the egrets fly past in the distant marsh. I waited for the bird to come.
In the tree sat a red bird. A glance- just another cardinal. Hold on, it was too small. There isn't enough red. Wait, is it him?
He perched somewhat conspicuously- to the casual observer, he was just another redbird. But I wasn't a casual observer, and I knew what I was looking at.
He made the handsome Chipping Sparrows, crisp with their neat little rusty caps and sharp eyeliner, suddenly turn into little LBJs. He dulled the scarlet of the many Northern Cardinals that surrounded him. With a flick of his verdant wings, he landed on the caged feeder, in full view.
"Whoa, whoa! Hey, come look at this!" I shouted to a random passerby. They probably thought I was crazy, but the girl with a camera, binoculars, and scope was a curious sight to begin with- seeing her get excited over something was special. I pointed it out to them. "That's the most beautiful bird in North America. Look through the scope!" (I had the scope preset on the feeders.)
You probably have guessed what this bird is. Arguably the most colorful bird on the East Coast, and maybe in all of North America, the Painted Bunting.
If you haven't heard my tale of my nemesis, the Painted Bunting, I'll try to keep it short. I visit coastal SC and Florida almost every single year. And I've gone to Arkansas in mid-April, when they should be there. But did I see one? No, of course not. It isn't my nemesis for nothing.
I'll be honest. I did not feel a rush of adrenaline or excitement when I saw the bird; I felt pretty relaxed and my reaction was more of a mix of "About time" and "Neat. Cool bird." I kind of wished it did leave a good impression on me, like Hooded Warblers do, but it didn't. I hardly ever saw his green back and when he perched to feed, he sat in the shade. (Of course.)
One thing about him that I liked was that he was banded, and I love banded birds. I went inside the nature center and told them I had seen the bands on his legs. (In the picture above you may be able to see a purplish/pinkish band). They gave me a few sheets of paper with the info of the Painted Buntings banded there at Huntington Beach State Park.
Painted Bunting Observer Team, one of his bands appears to be a blue/pink split band, meaning he was banded in South Carolina.
Back to the bird. He sat at the millet feeder, perched like a king at the topmost perch. A few other birders and bird watchers came by and photographed him, but he was flighty. He bounded back into the myrtles, patiently waiting for the traffic to die down, but it still made him nervous. Eventually I watched him fly off behind the nature center, and that was the last glimpse I saw of the bird.
I hope to have more, better encounters with this species. It wasn't really soul-satisfying in the way when I see a Northern Pintail in the scope or hear the hauntingly beautiful song of a Hermit Thrush. This particular individual wasn't as confiding, but I'm hoping in the future he's a bit more cooperative!