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BUNTINGS AND GNATCATCHERS

October 11, 2011

Painted Bunting by John Agnew

We live in South Florida most of the year, and now is the time  when some of our winter avian guests return. For a few weeks we’ve been hearing Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers making their high-pitched psst noise from the trees. They are about the size of an average-sized hummingbird, blue-gray in color of course – on the back –  and their undersides are white and  they have a long narrow tail. They’re the easiest bird to lure in if you make their psst noise right back at them. Actually, it’s easier to make a shhhh noise – like you would say to an unruly child in the library. When the birds hear it, they come closer to see who or what is making the weird noise. If they do come that close, you can see they have a white ring around their eyes. Their beak is thin and works well for grabbing small insects – hence the name gnatcatcher. The Blue-gray Gnatcatchers breed in Florida, but we seem to see them mostly during the winter, so we count them as a “returning winter visitor” to our yard.

In my recent article in the Palm Beach Post, I mentioned that Painted Buntings would soon be returning to our yards for the winter, and before the article went to press, there they were. My calendar note says, “September 29, 2011 – Painted Buntings are back!” This is one of those birds that is hard to believe when you see it, and once you see it you will never forget the spectacular colors. In fact, they used to be called nonpareils – having no equal. The males are cardinal red underneath, the head is royal blue, and the back is chartreuse.  The females are the lovely chartreuse all over. And since they are seedeaters, their beaks are conical for cracking seeds.

We hang a special feeder for them, which has small openings for them to go in and keeps  other birds out. We also encourage people to put in native plants that the buntings and other birds can eat, so our bird feeders are a very small supplement for them, and nature provides the majority of their food. One of the readily available plants that buntings visit is the wildflower Tropical Sage or Red Sage, Salvia coccinea. It’s the kind of plant that has flowers and seeds on it at the same time, so you have beauty and utility together. Also, if you have hummingbirds in your yard over the winter, they will come to the red flowers. I used to “dead head” the Tropical Sage flower stalks to encourage more blooming, until I discovered the buntings were eating the seeds on the stalks. So I quit that! The plants and the buntings spread the seeds and they come up everywhere. They also transplant easily.

One other aspect of our back yard that attracts birds is the designated “weedy patch “. I have no idea what some of the weeds or grasses are that pop up in this area where we don’t mow, but I see the buntings go to them and nibble seeds off them. Some of these seeds are half the size of the o’s in this sentence. As long as the UWT’s (Unidentified Wild Things) don’t try to take over the yard, and seem to be feeding something (butterflies or birds), I usually allow them to remain.

So far we have 2 males and 1 female Painted Buntings, and we had as many as 7 or 8 last winter.  As soon as it gets cool enough to turn off the AC, I’ll be able to hear their little bsszzzt noise. It won’t be long now. If you live in the Palm Beach County area, check out Meadow Beauty Nursery and look at their excellent photo-filled website  http://meadowbeautynursery.com/. It’s a great way to see what native wildflowers look like.

Thanks to my friend, John Agnew, who provided the Painted Bunting photo. You can see his beautiful artwork at: www.johnnagnew.com and http://herps2art.wordpress.com

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2 Comments
  1. SarahDavisDean permalink

    I loved this writeup, Ann! I’ve emailed it to several people.

  2. Diane permalink

    I hope to see a Painted Bunting sometime in my life. Really nice blogging, Ann.

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