Painted bunting
Closer crop of a painted bunting at Great Falls, MD

Painted Bunting

A day or two after Christmas, I suggested to my wife that we pack up the van and head over to Great Falls. There were a days of nice weather in the forecast, and we had been cooped up at home for so long, so it seemed like a great opportunity to get out for a few hours.

As usual for something like this, I planned to bring my camera, and hopefully get a few photos of the kids, and hopefully a few birds. Just before we left, I nearly decided against bring the camera, figuring there might not be any photogenic birds around at this time of year. For the most part, I was right. On our walk along the towpath, we saw a lone Canada goose standing in the river below us. Once we got to the observation deck, there were a few turkey vultures soaring overhead, and a single downy woodpecker in a tree right above us. Somehow, this was actually less than I was expecting.

The river was impressively high due to recent rain and melting snow up north, but after we got our usual photos, we headed back along the boardwalk and stopped to eat a snack at the trailhead. My family got a little bit ahead of me as we were walking back. I was looking at something, but I don’t even remember what, when on the far side of the drained canal, I caught a flash of red out of the corner of my eye. I figured it was probably a cardinal, but hoping it was something more interesting, like maybe a scarlet tanager, which I’ve never seen before.

Looking across the canal, a distance of 100 feet or so, I tried to get a look at the bird before I attempted to find it through my camera’s viewfinder. Something wasn’t quite right. There definitely wasn’t enough red for it to be either a cardinal or a scarlet tanager. Once I spotted it with the zoom lens, I realized I was looking at something I never could have guessed at: Sitting on a branch was a painted bunting.

I knew exactly what I was looking from the start. This is one of those birds I’ve seen in books and apps dozens of times. What I didn’t realize was how unique this bird was. I called to Jen and the kids, and let them look through the camera, which gave me the chance to look it up in Merlin. I actually had trouble looking it up because this bird wasn’t in the local data sets that I had downloaded in my app. Only after I googled it did I realize this bird wasn’t a rare local, but a vagrant that shouldn’t be within a thousand miles of here at this time of year — and it really doesn’t belong here even in the warmer months.

I posted my best photo on Reddit and waited for the internet points to roll in. Before long, people started messaging me, asking for a more precise location. The next day, I posted it on eBird, but I was already starting to get the sense that something was happening. My Reddit post had made its way to a few Facebook groups, and soon, I found that other people had spotted it based on my eBird post. I found the MD Birding Facebook group, and saw that not only had people found the same bird, but it was still in the exact same location.

Last night, things got really crazy when my little bird made the front page of The Washington Post. The media coverage continued today when The Guardian and The Hill both picked up the story. I can’t say the idea of news articles about this bird hadn’t crossed my mind, since uncommon birds often get articles written about them. The crowds at Great Falls aren’t quite at Central Park Hot Duck levels, but this little bird is definitely attracting attention. Then again, Great Falls isn’t really walkable from anywhere and it costs $20 to park.

Eventually this bird will be on his way, and the crowds will disappear, but it’s nice to know I caused a minor frenzy by remembering to bring my camera for once.


Painted bunting
Painted bunting at Great Falls, MD
Tree partially chewed by a beaver
A beaver's work in progress
River rapids
One of the chutes along the boardwalk to Olmstead Island at Great Falls, MD
Great Falls, MD
Panoramic view of Great Falls from the Maryland side

I also posted a version of this on Instagram.