Varied Buntings at Oasis Ranch
- Concerning Varied Buntings at Oasis Ranch, Mono, 10:50 AM, May 28.
Kristie Nelson and John Sterling have both contacted me and expressed surprise over the sighting and John asked me if it's real. It's quite real. I read that Todd Easterla was out looking for the birds; bless his heart.
I'm not someone who has spent a lot of time looking for Mexican birds in the southern US, but I have spent many months looking for them in Mexico, mostly by driving around remote areas in pickup trucks. My AviSys file shows 12 records for Varied Bunting from 1980 to 2010 in 7 states, all have been submitted to eBird, only 2 of those in the east, so most of my experience has been with the western subspecies dickeyae/pulchra. In that experience, I've found them to be shy, secretive and averse to human habitations. I've mostly found them in very small flocks (family groups?) on the ground near cover. Indigo Bunting I've found to occur much more commonly and in generally larger flocks, sometimes with other species, throughout southern Mexico and Central America and they are much more confiding. (I saw my first CA INBU at Cottonwood Canyon, INY 5/29/77 and almost expect them in late spring in the desert.) The female western Varied Buntings are dull little birds indeed, the ultimate Little Brown Jobs and would be an outrageous call anywhere outside of their normal range unless they're accompanied by a colorful male. They're richer brown than the eastern ones, which is the one Sibley illustrates. I recommend Howell and Webb's ...Mexico... tome for a picture of her.
Surprise. I am someone who spends an unusual amount of time alone and am well adjusted to it, without inclination to talk to myself. I was birding solo when the male VABU hopped into my bins view. My response was clearly audible and obscene, "What the * is that?!" It had perched with it's back to me, perhaps 10 degrees facing right of dead away, and the salient feature was the red "nape", actually a patch over the hindneck and up onto the hindcrown. Varied Buntings have what one might call reverse fugitive colors, they reveal themselves only if you can look at them for a few seconds. Watching the bird wait it's turn in the shade at the birdbath I could see that the red (not fire engine red, but stronger than rufous) was completely bounded by blue a bit deeper and not as bright as Indigo Bunting blue, which extended over the face and existed over the bottom of the neck. The wings were quite dark, appearing black and without wingbars. The bill was not the sharp wedge one sees on LAzBU and INBU, but rounded, with a curved culmen, more like Painted but stubbier, imparting a different and puny aspect to the face. The rest of the plumage didn't reveal it's color to me, but appeared dark and fairly uniform. As it got ready to go for its dip, it shuffled its wings, which had been covering it's back and rump, and revealed that the rump was blue, and a lighter and brighter blue than the color on the crown and face. I may have seen the same bird flyby about an hour earlier and thought it was possibly an Indigo Bunting, but it didn't look blue enough and there was something wrong about it structurally for INBU, and so I hadn't even included it in my field notes at the time. The wings on VABU are shorter and rounder than INBU. After the VABU male dropped down and out of sight to bathe, another little bunting of similar size and structure, appearing to be a fairly rich and uniform brown overall, appeared to the right of the bathing area. She had the same rounded bill.
I hung around for over a half hour with my camera at the ready, a Cannon SX40. Given the likelyhood that that particular camera would take an acceptable picture of this particular bird, I thought it better to take steps to get others to observe and document it. I've seen all North American buntings save Rosita's/Rose-bellied and was aware that Painted is CBRC reviewable and that Varied is worse, so I headed over to Deep Springs to see if anybody was around. Nadie. After a stop in the White Mountains, I proceeded to Big Pine, found the library, told the librarian that I had a bird watching emergency and needed to use a computer and posted the sighting to County Birds.
My internet access is negligible, especially over the weekends. If you have any questions, better to call me at home. 707 763-2450