Mid-February Birding Surprises: Painted Bunting and Audubon's Warbler

Feb 15, 2017

Here we are in mid-February, and with the snow flying and storms raging, you’d think we’d be done with finding new rare birds overwintering here on the Cape and Islands. Fall migration, which brings most of our rare birds, seems a distant memory. We scoured the landscape during the Christmas bird counts, the hotspots have all been birded countless times, and all the rare feeder birds have been called in and documented. Or at least one would think so. But one would be wrong, because wacky birds that we have somehow missed continue to turn up each week.


Last week, some folks in Orleans strolled into the Birdwatcher’s General Store with a photo of a very colorful, very out-of-place looking bird that had been at their feeders. They had assumed it was someone’s escaped pet, as surely no native North American bird would be so dazzlingly colored. But in fact, the bird was a Painted Bunting, native breeder of the southern United States, and it had presumably flown the wrong way this fall and ended up here on the Cape. Birders have been staging watches at the neighborhood’s feeders with good success ever since.


In another yard, this time in North Truro, a wayward warbler of the west has recently taken up residence. While technically just a subspecies of our familiar Yellow-rumped Warbler, the Audubon’s Warbler is quite different, sporting a bright yellow throat and a more extensive yellow crown in breeding plumage. They breed in coniferous forests of the montane west from Arizona to Canada and mostly winter in Mexico. With only seven prior records of this subspecies for the Cape and Islands, this is not your normal feeder bird.


A surprising as it is that new rare birds are still turning up in mid-winter, you might be more surprised that one bird that showed up in October is even still alive. A Rufous Hummingbird that has been visiting a yard in Falmouth since October is still hanging in there, having survived several major and minor snow events and some brutally cold temperatures. Of course, it wouldn’t be alive without the help of the homeowner, who has attached aquarium heaters to her hummingbird feeders so they won’t freeze. Rufous Hummingbirds breed in cold wet forests as far north as Alaska, so are no strangers to surviving freezing temperatures. As long as they have enough food, they can survive freezing nights by going into a torpor that reduces their metabolism and hence their energy needs.


This is not the first Rufous Hummingbird to survive a winter on the Cape – a bird in Bourne stayed from October through at least the end of February of 2007. You might be tempted to assume that a hummingbird that disappeared in February finally succumbed to the cold. But in fact, late February is consistent with when birds in the normal wintering range would head back north, so a bird disappearing in February did not die, but rather migrated out of the area on a normal schedule. Data from catching and weighing these birds during the banding process has shown that they even gain weight during their winter here. Sort of like the rest of us would if we drank sugar water all day for three months.


Speaking of getting fat, you might want to consider putting suet out to lure in a rare bird – it’s popular with everything from your local woodpeckers and chickadees, to overwintering Pine Warblers and bluebirds, to whatever rare bird may be in the neighborhood. I even had a White-footed Mouse and a Red Fox visit my suet in the same 24 hours last week. You never know who might stop by to chew the fat.