Birding

6 Other Birds (Beyond the Bunting) That Make People Go Nuts

They could be vagrants or they could be regulars—there's no wrong reason for getting stirred up about a bird.

“People Are Losing Their S**t Over This Bird," the New York Post proclaimed last week (inspired by an excellent quote from birder Doug Gochfield), spurring the kind of media frenzy birding rarely sees. 

The bird behind the profanity? A male Painted Bunting—a creature so spectacular, the French refer to it as “nonpareil” (translation: incomparable). The bright-colored songbird that landed in New York City was remarkably far from its typical home in southern Texas and Florida (read the probable explanation here), though honestly, with that plumage, it's an incredible sight any time. Birders and novices alike have crowded in Prospect Park to get a look.

The mania was a good reminder of how fun birding can be. In honor of the bunting, we'd like to acknowledge the many times when it's acceptable to completely lose your s**t as a birder:

  • When a tropical bird pops up in a strange, drab background (yes, everyone can see you Mr. Bunting)
  • When the bird is more than 1,000 miles outside of its range (like Great Kiskadees from Texas hanging out in South Dakota)
  • When a bird from another country shows up and photo bombs a local legend (sorry Least Bittern, but that Rufous-necked Wood-rail was really great)
  • When you get more than 10 new life birds in a single day (during a trip I co-led in Texas, a guy from Alaska got 90 lifers!)
  • When your carefully curated native plants pay off, and cool species start nesting in your yard (American Redstart for the win)

And then there are times when even the neighborhood birds make you go weak in the bowels—here are some of the best.

Green Jay 

Southern tip of Texas (top photo)

The Green Jay is the Grand Canyon of birds: You can’t oversell it. It almost always shows up in Rio Grande Valley birding ads, and even birders who’ve seen it dozens of times don’t grow tired of it. Its head is pretty jay-ish, but the rest of its body looks like a margarita. These corvids are the flying definition of “amaze balls.” Since they're feeder birds, they're easy to find, so feel free to set aside your first day in the valley just to gape at them.

Bobolink

Northern and eastern U.S.

Bobolinks (female on left, male on right). Photo: Lynn Cleveland/Audubon Photography Awards

During breeding season, male Bobolinks morph into these insane little prairie birds, sporting what looks like a bad bleach job on their heads. The plumage alone is enough, but there’s one more thing: Their songs sound exactly like R2-D2—if R2-D2 were on crack. Being surrounded by a field of Bobolinks might give you mild hysteria; but at the end of the day, it’s worth every tick you have to pull off your pants.

Blackburnian Warbler

Eastern U.S.

Male Blackburnian Warbler. Photo: Claudine Lamothe/Flickr Creative Commons

The reason why my husband isn’t a birder (I think) is because I started him off with sparrows, not warblers. In fact, the first time he looked at a male Blackburnian was the first time I ever heard him admit that a bird was “cool-looking.” This tiny warbler can have that effect on people—probably cause its head looks like it’s on fire. When you’re craning your neck to get a look at warblers in tall, leafy trees, this is one face that really stands out.

Lewis’s Woodpecker

Western U.S.

Lewis's Woodpecker. Photo: Pam Koch/Great Backyard Bird Count

The Lewis’s Woodpecker breaks so many rules. It bucks the trend for woodpeckers in North America, which are usually black, white, and red. This little traitor is dark green and pink instead, almost like a hummingbird. If that’s not rebellious enough—it also doesn’t forage for insects by boring holes in trees. It hunts like a flycatcher, and will perch on a post or tree and fly into the air to grab insects. This stunning woodpecker will not disappoint with its iridescent colors and wild aerial flips. 

Scarlet Tanager

Eastern U.S.

Male Scarlet Tanager. Photo: Bettina Arrigoni/Flickr Creative Commons

The male of this species is so nuclear and red—even photos can’t do it justice. The Scarlet Tanager is a common but elusive bird that likes to lurk in the tops of oak trees, taunting you with its chick-burr call. If you do spot one though, don’t stare too long: The sight can practically burn your retinas off. (The males are only rouge during spring and summer.) Also, keep an eye out for the orange variant, which is as cool as a creamsicle, but also pretty rare. 

Any Damn Owl

Every damn state and continent (minus Antarctica)

Great Gray Owl. Photo: Kurt Bowman/Audubon Photography Awards

That’s right: Whether it’s a tiny Elf Owl or a jumbo Great Gray Owl, these birds are worth the emotional breakdown. Owls are masters of blending in with their surroundings, so finding them is a real test. But when you do get the rare satisfaction of laying eyes on one, it boosts your birding cred. Plus, you could catch them doing all sorts of wacky things, like having fist fights, catching pet snakes, and of course, being real bobbleheads.

Now, get out there and lose your mind over some birds.

Correction: The bird that was photo bombed by the wood-rail was a Least Bittern, not an American Bittern.

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