Last weekend, hundreds of people flocked to a Maryland park with binoculars around their necks, spotting scopes tucked under their arms and cameras in their hands. Bird-watchers are a particularly committed group of wildlife enthusiasts—and not even near-freezing temperatures and rain could stop them after word got out that the park had a special, colorful visitor.
Along the Potomac River, somebody spotted a bird so vibrant that it looked as if it was splattered with gobs of bright paint. It had a distinctive red belly, a vivid blue head, and green and yellow splotches along its back and wings, and the birder identified it as a male painted bunting—a species usually found in Florida and other parts of the south, reports Samantha Schmidt for the Washington Post.
After the person reported their once-in-a-lifetime spotting on the popular birding app eBird, birders from all over the area excitedly gathered at the park in hopes of catching a glimpse of the stunning painted bunting, reports Oliver Milman for the Guardian.
"To see it close to D.C., that was absolutely unrealistic," Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland’s ambassador to the United States who initially spotted the bird, tells the Post. Pitteloud, a lifelong bird-watcher, has traveled across the globe photographing birds, but he had always hoped of seeing a painted bunting. It finally happened on the first weekend of 2021, and he says it was "exceptional."
More than 1,100 congregated at the park on Saturday, double the size of a normal crowd at this time of year. By 3:00 p.m., just two hours before the park closed its gates, more than 80 cars were still in line to enter, reports the Washington Post. For many birders, going after a "lifer" — the first time they spot a species with their own eyes — is worth the trek.
The painted bunting and its kaleidoscope of colors certainly looked out of place against the drab, rainy backdrop of Maryland's winter. It usually resides in southern states—like Florida, Louisiana and Texas—and down through Mexico and Central America, according to the National Audubon Society. It's unclear how a bird that thrives in sunshine and warm weather ended up in Maryland, but it could have something to do with climate change, reports the Post.
Last April, the National Audubon Society published a study in the journal Ecological Applications suggesting that climate change is causing some avian species to move further north during the winter and breeding season as temperatures rise, the Guardian reports. The painted bunting is one of the affected species, and it was added to the Society's Climate Watch program to monitor how birds are responding to climate change, according to a press release.
Despite the potentially bad news for climate change, birders were ecstatic to ring in 2021 with such a spectacular find.
"It’s a magical way to start the new year," one person told the Post.