Star Magazine

May 21, 2014

A bright blue bird sends me soaring

When I became the first person to record a sighting of a lazuli bunting in Chase County, Kan., I became a confirmed bird-watching enthusiast.

For most people, May 10 was just another weird-weather Saturday on the prairie, blustery with jacket-on, jacket-off temperature swings as the sun hid and broke through fat gray clouds. But I will always remember it as the Day of the Bunting.

I was walking across the yard to take sheets and pillowcases off the clothesline when I caught sight of a small bird with a brilliant aqua head picking at the sunflower seeds on a nearby feeder. I froze mid-stride like a bad actor in a horror film, then began walking backward slowly toward the house. Without taking my eyes off the feeder, I whispered loudly to a friend coming out the kitchen door, “Don’t move. There’s a bird I’ve never seen. On the feeder.”

I back-stepped into the kitchen, grabbed my camera, inched the storm door open just enough to slip out sideways, then zigzagged in slow motion to the gazebo, which I’ve discovered makes a good blind for “shooting” birds. It probably looks like a people cage to them.

After snapping several frames at maximum zoom, I put the camera down and really looked at my exotic winged visitor. It was smaller than a bluebird, and its head was a vivid aqua, as opposed to the bluebird’s royal blue. Its breast was cinnamon-colored with an ivory belly, and its wings were blue at the tops but shading to black with two white bars on each side.

Even though the little bird was the new kid on the block at the feeder, it was not timid, staying put as the regulars — cardinals, American goldfinches, house finches, tufted titmice and black capped chickadees — swooped down. Occasionally it would lift up into a nearby sweet gum tree, but then return to the feeder. It stayed in the yard most of the day.

But what was I looking at? The size of the bird and the vibrancy of its color reminded me of the indigo bunting, so I looked that up in my Audubon field guide to see what birds were pictured near it. Sure enough, right above the familiar indigo was a picture of my bird: a lazuli bunting. It’s named for the royal blue gemstone lapiz lazuli.

I was pretty jazzed that this new bird was one I’d never even heard of. So what could be better? This: When I cross-checked lazuli bunting in the definitive “Birds of Kansas” coffee table tome by Max Thompson et al., there was no dot in my county, Chase, to indicate a previous sighting!

So I emailed some photos of my feathered find to Matt Gearheart of Lenexa, a respected birder I profiled in 2012. Gearheart will become president of the Kansas Ornithological Society in October. He texted me back that indeed my sighting was a new county record.

I’ve seen other somewhat rare birds on my property, which abuts a prairie pasture and a creek tree line: three times “Woody the Woodpecker,” aka the pileated woodpecker, has graced us with his huge, jackhammering presence. And for one day only, a great crested flycatcher, a cardinal-sized bird with a lemon yellow belly and a furry gray neck, perched for hours on a fence post on my grape arbor.

I’ve laughed at the antics of over-eager bird chasers in “The Big Year,” a Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson comedy, and marveled at the passion other people develop for birds in “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers,” a lyrical account of six extinct birds by Christopher Cokinos.

But the tiny turquoise lazuli bunting, my first record-setting bird, will go down as the moment everything changed — when I crossed over to the Bright Side, the alternate universe of birding enthusiasts. So blame him, and excuse me in advance, if I look over your head while you are talking or stop listening mid-sentence because I think I hear the “kee-kee-kee-kee” of a scissor-tailed flycatcher.

Reach Cindy Hoedel at Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and the Star’s ChowTown blog.

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