In Search of a Painted Bunting

Painted Buntings make just about every birder's life list. My quest to see one was easier than I thought - once I looked in the right place.

Once you see a photo of a Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris), you can’t help but want to see one in person, if just to verify that the colors are as vivid as they seem. You’d think this bird would be easy to find, since it doesn’t really blend in. But this bird in found in limited areas in the U.S. It breeds in summer from Texas along the Gulf Coast to Northern Florida, and up through the Carolina coasts. In winter, it migrates south to the Florida peninsula and Central America.

Painted Bunting Range Map

Even in these areas, populations are scattered, and these secretive birds don’t make it any easier to find them. So when my husband I set off to find this glorious bird in Central Florida, we knew we’d need some help. As we have many times in the past, we used eBird to find out where Painted Buntings have been spotted locally (learn how to do a species search here), and found Felts Audubon Preserve, less than an hour south from our home in Tampa. In fact, the birds are seen so regularly there that one is pictured on the cover of their brochure. So we packed up our binoculars and camera and set off.

Felts Audubon Preserve is small, but offers something many preserves and parks don’t – feeders and a bird blind with large windows, so birders can observe and photograph the feeder visitors in comfort, without disturbing the birds. Painted Buntings had been reported at this site in the days leading up to our visit, so we felt pretty good about our chances.

Felts Audubon Preserve Bird Blind
Felts Audubon Preserve Bird Blind

We settled in alongside one other birder on a lovely Saturday afternoon in January. Our fellow birder had been waiting awhile for the elusive bird, but told us other birds had been stopping by regularly. While we waited, we were entertained by a Northern Cardinal male (and two female friends)…

Northern CardinalJill Staake
Jill Staake Northern Cardinal

…along with a flock of Indigo Buntings just starting to grow in their brilliant blue breeding plumage for mating season.

Indigo BuntingsJill Staake
Jill Staake Indigo Buntings

We also saw Tufted Titmice, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, Mourning Doves, Palm Warblers, and Yellow-Rumped Warblers – all lovely and fun to watch in their own right. But we were here for the rainbow colors of the Painted Bunting. And so we waited. As the first hour passed, we started to wonder if it would really happen. And then, a flash of green and yellow set our hearts racing.

Painted Bunting FemaleJill Staake
Jill Staake Indigo Buntings (L) and Female Painted Bunting (R)

A female painted bunting! Surely a male must be nearby? We held our breaths… and a few seconds later, the brilliant flash of color dashed past and landed on a feeder nearby. The only catch? He landed around back, where all we could see was his tail.

Painted Bunting FemaleJill Staake
Jill Staake This female Painted Bunting posed happily for minutes at a time, while the male remained out of sight around back (you can see his tail just to the right of the female’s).

For long minutes, nothing changed. We waiting, muttering little pleas under our breath for the male to come forward. And then… a flock of mourning doves flew in, and the buntings scattered back off into the underbrush.

At this point, our fellow birder gave up. He’d managed to get a few quick sightings, but was ready to move on. We were determined to get photos though, and didn’t have anywhere else to be. So we stayed. It was fun to watch the other feeder birds come and go, and after awhile, the Indigo Bunting flock returned. And then, at last, we were rewarded. Two female Painted Buntings flew in, followed by one brilliant male. And this time he didn’t hide… immediately.

Painted BuntingJill Staake
Painted Bunting (Male)

He remained skittish, staying for only seconds before hiding in the nearby undergrowth again. But this time, he stayed within photo range, and we managed to snap a few more shots.

Painted BuntingJill Staake
Jill Staake Painted Bunting
Painted BuntingJill Staake
Jill Staake Painted Bunting

We watched him for as long as he was in sight, and his lady friends too. It was certainly worth the wait, especially with all the free entertainment leading up to the main show. Eventually though, the cleaning crew showed up, and we knew it was time to head out.

Raccoon Jill Staake
Jill Staake The Raccoon Cleanup Crew

As we left, another couple entered the blind and we shared the news that we had seen the Painted Bunting male more than once. They excitedly settled in for their own wait for this lifetime bird. We knew that if they had the patience, they were sure to be rewarded with the same experience we had, one that was certainly worth the time and effort involved. Painted Buntings are just as beautiful in real life as they are in photos – and now we know it for sure.

If you live in the range of the Painted Bunting and would like to try attracting it to your backyard, here are a few tips:

  • Offer millet and thistle (Nyjer) seed. Painted Buntings eat mainly small insects, especially spiders, they will visit feeders for small seeds like thistle and white millet seed. Try a thistle-feeder with a cage to keep out larger birds, as buntings can sometimes be feeder-shy.
  • Add a birdbath. Like many birds, Painted Buntings like to have an easy source of water to visit. Consider putting in a birdbath with a fountain – moving water attracts more birds.
  • Plant shrubs and bushes. Painted Buntings nest close to the ground in low-growing vegetation, so having these on your property raise your chances of bringing in a breeding pair. Seek out natives for your area when possible.

Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.