I estimate I’ve seen an indigo bunting about four, five at most, times in my life, always without searching for them. Today was one of those times, thanks to my first grader who is sort of being home-schooled at the moment given the virus. Each time I can’t quite believe the intensity of the blue.
I’m not an obsessive birdwatcher or anything, but I have devoted some time during my life, especially in younger decades, to observing, studying, and learning about them. I’d estimate I’ve probably seen about 40% of the approximately 700 or so species normally visible within the continental United States (and Canada) during my lifetime. I am not so interested in adding to the exotic count these days as much as noticing behavior and really just enjoying the sensory spectacle. There’s alot of habitual avian visitors along the river and up in the mountain, enough to color each seasonal shift with something pleasant and worth some moments. Merganser ducks are just finishing up their breeding season; sometimes as many as nine ducklings grace a springtime. They are wonderful dive fishers, usually spending 30-45 seconds down below before popping up magically in a spot up to ten meters away. When the sun is just right and not washing out or underplaying their coloring, these relatively long-bodied ducks are quite spectacular looking, with the bonus that the male and female have entirely different appearances. There are also kingfishers and great blue herons around to compete for the submarine bounty. In the adjacent woodland several kinds of woodpeckers go about their noisy flashy business, including northern flickers and pileated woodpeckers. two of my longtime faves.
The indigo bunting is another species which is gender-differentiated in terms of appearance. If you happen to see a solo female not too close up, you’d have trouble distinguishing it from one of the many North American brownish sparrows. But the bright deep blue of the male, especially in breeding season (now) is a delight to behold. Luckily for us, a male decided to visit our feeder located maybe ten feet out the dining room window, about 6PM, and hung out for nearly ten minutes of effortless facetime.
Daddy, there’s a bright blue bird eating our seeds!
You mean a blue jay, right? – I pooh-poohed from the next room.
No, it’s super bright and smaller; come see!
Provoked, I came to look, and sure enough there was enough of a blue head peaking out from the rear of the feeder to make me posit an identification. I told him ‘amazing find’ and we both watched as the bird gradually worked its way around towards front and center, till we could see its full indigo glory and get a good look at the beak shape and note the brownish tail feathers behind. The bunting maintained silence, a pity, as I was hoping to give my son an audio clue as well. After a few minutes the female arrived closer to the ground, picking up the detritus which was falling to the grass. The similar shape and tail coloring identified it for sure as an indigo bunting as well. But it would take something of an afficinado to id a female by itself. Eventually some song sparrows and a chipmunk showed up, and this was enough for the shy retiring buntings to skedaddle out of there. Hopefully they will check the same spot out tomorrow. This is the tail end of migratory season, and so it is highly possible they are passing through for the night and will never been seen here again. Thus, the serendipity. Afterwards we looked up some confirmatory photos and other general info on the species.
Peculiarly, one of the most prominent factoids mentioned about indigo buntings, especially in any somewhat scientific ornithological treatment of the species, is the ‘fact’ that indigo buntings are not truly blue, but only look blue to the eye, and are actually black in color. Something to do with diffraction of the light — which at one point in my thinking career I actually had a comprehension of. Nowadays, I am more dubious of scientific abstractions and feel something achurn in my throat chakra (sic) whenever basic common sense phenomenology feels violated. You will feel this violation too if you gaze upon a mature indigo bunting male and hear some nerdish type blithely inform you it is black — no biggie. I’m not saying I wouldn’t eventually agree with this view, or even perhaps both views, once I again deeply looked into the matter. In fact, maybe I should and devote some sort of philosophical rant to the whole idea. In this dispute I get the feeling that Goethe would inhabit one side of the battle line and Newton the other. If it looks blue… Here is a typical rendering:
“Like other blue birds, they have no blue pigments in their feathers. Instead, each feather is a drab brown and refracts and reflects only the blue wavelength when light is on it resulting in their blue appearance.”
Buntings are smallish songbirds characterized by relatively pronounced and formidably thick beaks which are handy for cracking vatious seeds that deter other birds. In this they are akin to the finches and the cardinal family. Their beaks are not quite as pronounced as the grosbeaks, another common northerly group of seed-cracking birds. There are are also lazuli, painted, and white as the Arctic snow buntings gracing North America, plus a number of different varieties native to Europe.
It’s really cool when an interest of yours rubs off a bit on a child, though I’m always neurotically monitoring to check I am not brainwashing him. I think arousing a child’s interest and attentiveness towards the natural world and it’s amazing idiosyncracies is one of the best things we can do for the world and the future. Once many years ago I drove a group of teenagers from inner city Newark to a party out in the Jersey suburbs, thirty miles to the west. Nothing you would exactly call the boondocks or even think of as especially rural. Because it was dusk when we arrived, and there was a modest stand of trees in the backyard of the house, the kids looked inexplicably worried. Once inside, laden with chips, a few of them nervously peered out the rear curtains. I asked what was the matter and they told me they’d never seen anything like this and wondered whether a bear was going to come! Individuals have vastly differing perspectives about the natural world, including some, sadly, who have none.
Note: The bottom photos are of female and male merganser ducks. I dig the lengthy beaks and attitude hairdo on the lady and kids. A couple of years ago, right about this time of year in fact, I had a warbler serendipity experience a few miles away from here on a natural trail. If you’d like to read an account of that, look here.
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