May/June 2018Glamour in the Maritime ForestBy Cheryl Lyn Dybas

North America's most beautiful bird graces South Carolina's scrub-shrubs... but for how long?

Captain Sams Spit, a sandbar at the southern end of South Carolina's Kiawah Island, moves with the winds, the waves, the tides. Sand grain by sand grain, it erodes and accretes, erodes and accretes.

The spit's beaches, and the low maritime forest that lies just behind them, are important to species like piping plovers, diamondback terrapins and bottlenose dolphins. And to what's known as North America's most beautiful bird, the painted bunting, named for the male's shimmering palette of blue, green, yellow and red iridescent feathers.

On a warm morning in early November, Town of Kiawah biologist Aaron Given and his team patiently wait for painted buntings to make fly-bys over Captain Sams Spit. The researchers are hidden in a thicket of wax myrtles, where they've strung mist nets - fine mesh nets draped between two poles - to catch the birds. The scientists will place identification bands on the buntings' legs, then release the birds unharmed.

The bands allow biologists to track painted buntings' whereabouts if the birds are re-trapped in following seasons, or when dead birds are reported. The information gives scientists a look at where painted buntings go, and when.

It's almost mid-day; the buntings seem to have eaten breakfast and flown. "We're at the tail end of painted bunting season in South Carolina," says Given. "Most will soon have gone south."

But within an hour, we spot what can only be called a rush of color as a male painted bunting flits near the mist net.

A group of beach-walkers inches closer to the spectacle. Whispers one, for whom this is the first sighting of a painted bunting, "They're so beautiful, they don't even look real."

Real they are, and in the fall of 2016, Given's team banded 102 painted buntings at Captain Sams Spit. Nets were open there for ninety-eight days, from August 15 through November 30.

"There might have been more birds banded," says Given, "had it not been for severe storms. We shut down for ten days due to weather: August 31 for rain, September 2 and 3 for Tropical Storm Hermine, and October 5 through 11 for Hurricane Matthew. It's the first year a hurricane has affected our banding, and it couldn't have come at a worse time - right at the peak of southbound migration."

By finding out where painted buntings spend their time, Given hopes to discover which micro-habitats are most important to the birds. "This year we've added another layer to the project," he says. Team members are placing twenty-five geolocators on adult male birds. Geolocators are tags that measure and store light levels, then use that information to calculate a bird's latitude and longitude. "These tags will help solve the mystery of where our painted buntings overwinter."

South Carolina residents participating in Project FeederWatch, an effort to count birds visiting feeders in winter, can also help by reporting painted bunting sightings. The birds are especially attracted to feeders with white millet seeds.

"Using observations submitted by FeederWatch participants, we've been able to get a sense of where painted buntings go for the winter," says FeederWatch leader Emma Greig. "We don't know the relative importance of these sites, however, because of large gaps in data. FeederWatch participants can contribute to the conservation of these beautiful birds by helping us map their winter distribution."

South by southeast

Come spring, painted buntings make their way north to breeding grounds by April. "First the males stake out and defend their territories," says Liz King, director of recreation at the Kiawah Island Resort, where painted buntings are common. Atop Kiawah's low-growing coastal trees - wax myrtles, slash pines and eastern redcedars - "males serenade females," says King. "Bonds are formed, chicks are hatched, and the cycle begins."

Kiawah Island, she says, focuses its land use policies on maintaining the dense understory painted buntings prefer. "Visitors often see these bright birds as they're driving along roads or walking along beach edges."

Research by biologist Sarah Latshaw of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Charleston shows that painted buntings on Kiawah, and likely across coastal South Carolina, prefer to nest and roost in live oaks, wax myrtles, slash pines, eastern redcedars, loblolly pines, seaside oxeyes and yaupon hollies.

Latshaw also found that painted buntings have small territories: one-third of a hectare. "One homeowner could potentially affect most or all of a bunting's territory," she says. "By providing the maritime forest and maritime shrub species painted buntings prefer, a landowner could have a tremendous effect on habitat availability."

When the birds' human neighbors conserve a block of unbroken scrub-shrub, says Given, "painted buntings and other wildlife species are the beneficiaries."

A Dancing Butterfly of a Bird

For painted buntings that winter south of the U.S. border, however, perching near people may not be wise. The birds are often trapped for use in the pet trade. Their extraordinary colors have made them coveted finds. "Painted buntings are caught and sold illegally as cage birds," Given says, "especially in Mexico and the Caribbean."

In the early 19th century, thousands of male painted buntings were shipped to Europe for sale. The trade was banned in the U.S. in the early 20th century, but it is still legal in certain countries. At a single location in Cuba, for example, an estimated seven hundred painted buntings were sold within a few days in May 2003, according to scientists Connie Herr and John Klicka of the University of Nevada and Paul Sykes Jr. of the University of Georgia. Writing in the July 2011 issue of the journal Conservation Genetics, the biologists reported that 100,000 painted buntings may have been trapped in Mexico between 1984 and 2000.

Decades earlier, ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote in his Life Histories of North American Birds, its volumes published from 1919 to 1968, that when it comes to describing "the avian gem we know as the painted bunting, Spanish seems more appropriate [than English], because in Spanish it is "mariposa:" butterfly. This bird, in its dazzling brilliance, seems hardly a creature of feathers at all, but rather a dancing butterfly. For flaming, jewel-like radiance, the nonpareil, as we know it in the South, literally fulfills the name: it is ‘without an equal.'"

No wonder painted buntings became targets in the cage trade.

Two Painted Buntings, Both in Danger?

These striking nonpareils are unfortunately in decline throughout their range, largely as a result of habitat loss, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Today, the painted bunting is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species - a step above species of Least Concern, and just below Vulnerable.

The global painted bunting population is estimated at 3.6 million birds, reports the IUCN, with that number falling since the mid-1960s. The species has been extirpated from parts of its range in the southwestern and eastern U.S., and northeastern Mexico. Breeding Bird Survey data from the U.S. and Mexico indicate that painted bunting numbers have declined by 55 percent during the last thirty years.

Two populations of painted buntings in fact divide up territory: an eastern and a western subspecies.

The eastern painted bunting (Passerina ciris ciris) breeds in the coastal southeastern U.S. from North Carolina south to Florida. Eastern birds likely spend their winters in southern Florida, including the Keys, the Bahamas and Cuba.

Western painted buntings (Passerina ciris pallidior) nest from Texas and Louisiana north to Kansas and Oklahoma and west to Arizona and New Mexico. These painted buntings flock to west Mexico for the winter.

When the western birds return in spring, they often land in places like the Santa Clara Ranch in the Texas Rio Grande Valley. "The ranch is located on virgin brushland," says owner Beto Gutierrez. "That's what attracts so many native and migrating species. Every birder and photographer who comes here wants a painted bunting, first and foremost."

Scientists have discovered that the two subspecies, eastern and western, never mix. Eastern painted buntings appear to remain on their side of an imaginary line, while western painted buntings do the same, on both breeding and wintering grounds.

The 2011 Conservation Biology paper by Herr, Klicka and Sykes raised an important question about "both" painted buntings. Based on that research, the American Ornithologists Union (AOU) debated whether to leave the birds as two subspecies, or to designate them as two completely separate species.

"The results of our study suggest that the Atlantic Coast painted bunting should be recognized as an independently evolving taxonomic unit," wrote Herr and co-authors in their paper. "It is apparent that all birds from the interior [western painted buntings] are more genetically related to each other than to any Atlantic Coast bird. Any subsequent conservation efforts or recovery goals should treat... these populations as separate management units."

Nonetheless, the question received an unexpected answer from the AOU. Many birders and ornithologists were surprised that the organization opted to leave the birds as one species with two subspecies.

A View of the Future

Whether one species or two, what does the future hold for painted buntings?

As the sea level rises, the ocean is stealing ashore in South Carolina and throughout the Southeast. One inch at a time, it's claiming the land. Even greater is the bird's habitat loss to land use change from rapid human population growth.

Warming conditions combined with habitat loss may already be enticing painted buntings to head north of the Carolinas, currently the eastern subspecies' northern limit. Scientists are keeping a keen eye on trends. This past winter (2017-18), "wrong way" birds were glimpsed in Virginia, Connecticut, New York and Vermont.

"It's important to find out what's happening to painted buntings on their wintering grounds as well as on their spring nesting territories," Given says, before errant beach walkers on Captain Sams Spit, and all of us, lose these brilliantly-colored birds without equal.

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