As It Happens

Folks flock to Maryland for rare sighting of bird that looks like a 'surrealist' painting

Ornithologists young and old descended on Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in the Washington, D.C., area this weekend after word spread of a bucket-list bird sighting.

Switzerland's ambassador to the U.S. among enthusiasts to photograph painted bunting

This painted bunting, normally seen in southern parts of the United States such as Florida, brought flocks of bird watchers to a park in the Washington, D.C., area when it was spotted there recently. (Jacques Pitteloud)

For bird-watchers who flocked to a park in the Washington, D.C., area this weekend, it was an auspicious start to the New Year.

Ornithologists young and old descended on Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park after word spread of a bucket-list bird sighting. A painted bunting — a colourful bird more commonly found in Florida — had been spotted there.

The bird that brightened a grey day at the end of a difficult year is the size and shape of a sparrow, but with a colour palette that looks like it's been swiped from the jungle-dwelling macaw.

"I think it's a sign," said avid birder Jacques Pitteloud, who was among the gaggle of enthusiasts assembled on the Maryland side of the Potomac river with their binoculars and telescopic lenses. 

Pitteloud also happens to be Switzerland's ambassador to the United States.

"You know, a painted bunting is a beautiful bird. It's a sign of beauty ... the beauty of nature. It has bright colours after a pretty grey year," he told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Pitteloud, who has been bird-watching since childhood when his parents gave him a guidebook, said seeing the painted bunting is a thrill for any birder. But it's also one of the birds European enthusiasts most hope to see when they travel to the southern parts of North America.

"It has bright yellow, extraordinary green, a blue head and a red belly. I mean, it's a combination of colours you do not expect in the north usually, and it makes for a very surprising sight," he said. 

"This bird really looks like like it has been more or less painted by a surrealist painter, and one would not would not expect a bird to survive in nature with such bright colours."

But the painted bunting is exceptionally good at skulking — keeping out of sight of predators — and that's what makes it difficult to spot despite its primary-coloured feathers.

Word spreads fast among birders. The sighting was noted on the website ebird last week, and on Saturday there were 1,100 visitors to the park, twice the normal amount.

The climate connection

Unfortunately, the bird's rare flight this far north may be linked to warming temperatures.

"We don't know exactly what the reasons are this year; we've had a few really exceptional birds coming to the Washington area. It could also be special winds this year. The winds were a little bit different, but there is no doubt that climate change is with us," Pitteloud said. 

He notes that in region of southern Switzerland where he's from, there are increasing sightings of Mediterranean birds that were never seen in the area 20 years ago.

Jacque Pitteloud, Switzerland's ambassador to the U.S., has been a birding enthusiast since he was a boy. (Submitted by Jacque Pitteloud)

However, sightings like this one are great for creating awareness of birds and the threats they face.

"Generally the birders were very happy because it draws the attention to a hobby that is intimately linked to nature conservation," Pitteloud said. 

While the pandemic has put many other pursuits on pause, bird watching has been enjoying a renaissance of sorts, with reports of increased sales of cameras and binoculars.

Pitteloud said he sees that playing out in influential circles in Washington as well.

"There is a very interesting aspect about ornithology and bird watching. You meet extremely interesting people. You would be surprised at the kind of people you meet around Washington birding — really high-level people," he said.

"I mean, birding is the new golfing. And it's much better for nature because golf courses are deserts, ecologically speaking, and you have to pay the fees to be a member. And here you just go to the woods and you meet extremely interesting people." 

Looking forward, Pitteloud said he's optimistic the bird may herald a kind of parting of the clouds that defined 2020's struggles.

"Let's really hope that 2021 is going to look like the painted bunting."

Written by Brandie Weikle. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. 

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