Nova Scotia

'This was a lifer for me,' says Cape Breton birdwatcher

A painted bunting normally lives in Mexico, Florida and the southern U.S., but this week the multi-coloured tropical bird has been frequenting a bird feeder in Marble Mountain, Cape Breton.

A tropical bird has been visiting a feeder in Marble Mountain

The colourful painted bunting is a tropical bird normally found in the southern U.S. and Mexico. (David Johnston)

A longtime Cape Breton birdwatcher says it's the sighting of a lifetime.

Port Hawkesbury's David Johnston, 79, has been birdwatching for 50 years. On Tuesday, he got to see a painted bunting, a member of the cardinal family, in the Marble Mountain area of Cape Breton.

"It's extremely exciting," says Johnston. "This was a lifer for me, for sure. When you get to be my age, and a birder for as long as I have, it's very seldom that you'll go birding and see a bird that you haven't seen before."

There have only been four sightings of the bird in Nova Scotia in the last 10 years, but two this year.

Birdwatchers are eager to see the painted bunting, but the property owner is reluctant to have too many visitors. (David Johnston)

Johnston said a Marble Mountain resident phoned him when she spotted an unusually colourful bird eating sunflower seeds at her feeder.

"A bunting is a little smaller than a robin," says Johnston, who drove more than 30 kilometres to see the bird, "and it belongs down in the southeastern United States. It migrates from the tropics."

The painted bunting is normally found in Mexico, Florida and the southern U.S. Johnston says it may have been blown off course while migrating.

"They just get confused, or they get blown by storms, or they get into trade winds and they overshoot their migration."

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Johnston identified the bird and reported the sighting on the website eBird Canada. "Everything that goes into eBird goes into a North American database," he said, "and scientists make great use of the data."

'Knew this was going to blow up'

Johnson said he is a little concerned because fellow birders want to see the painted bunting, but the property owner is reluctant to have large numbers of visitors.

"That's a little bit of a problem that's going on right now," he said. "I knew this was going to blow up."

For that reason, Johnston is not revealing the bird's exact location.

As for the bird's future, Johnston said it could head south to a more suitable climate, or it could remain the area. But he said the bird could not survive the Cape Breton winter.

About the Author

Joan Weeks


Joan Weeks has been a reporter with CBC in Sydney for over a decade. Many of her stories are investigative with a focus on government spending and accountability, as well as health and economic issues important to Cape Breton.