Painted bunting, a uncommon customer to Brooklyn, offers fowl watchers a purpose to stare
At the edge of a blunt patch of brown Brooklyn grass and weeds, a small media scramble quietly raced for its position.
“Let’s go,” said the Channel 2 cameraman to the Channel 5 cameraman. “You got it?”
Twenty feet behind her lenses, the star of the show appeared, a tiny finch-like bird. What he did was inconspicuous: duck, bob, peck, hops. Duck, bob, peck, hop.
But what he looked like was not on the charts: brilliant indigo head, yellow shoulders that shaded from chartreuse to green, with scarlet bottoms.
The object of fascination was a man-painted bunting, a grassland bird connoisseur never seen before in Brooklyn – and rarely found north of Arkansas – who has drawn crowds of bird watchers to Prospect Park since its discovery on Sunday .
“It’s like the Liberace bird,” said Tom Stephenson, a bird writer who lives near the park.
On Wednesday, for a fourth day in a row, the bird grazed and played hide and seek with bird watchers and reporters in a strip of native grasses planted outside an ice rink complex called the LeFrak Center.
“It’s a very skulky bird,” said Rob Bate, president of the Brooklyn Bird Club, “down in the weeds that feed on seeds.”
Not only is this bunting out of reach, it’s out of season too. Its species breeds in the southern plains and ozarks, and migrates to Florida and Mexico in September, although they occasionally migrate as far as Canada.
“It’s known for tramps, but that’s very rare,” said Stephenson, a retired drummer who created a bird identification app called Bird Genie, which he calls “Shazam of Birdsong.” Painted bunting has been spotted maybe seven or eight times in New York, Stephenson said.
It is still rarer to see a grown man – they are the ones with the fancy colors.
Painted bunting, Stephenson said, “makes a pretty regular appearance in Cape May, New Jersey, but these are immature birds.”
“Usually the bird migrates in the first year,” he continued, “and these birds are very monotonous.”
An adult woman was seen in Brooklyn in 1999.
Though the city had a record in warm November, Stephenson said he doubted it was the unusual temperatures that brought the bunting here. “A wind from the west might have done it,” he said. But now that the bird is here, the warm weather has certainly encouraged it to stay.
This also applies to the native grasses that were planted in 2012 as part of the $ 74 million project that created the 26 hectare LeFrak Center: small blue stem, sideoats grama, poor oat grass.
“It’s good to have a functional landscape,” said Ronen Gamil, an assistant gardener for the park, who peeked at the bunting on his handicraft.
As the bleak morning turned into the afternoon, bird watchers and reporters followed a path that curved from the LeFrak Center as skaters unsuspectingly glided across the misty rink. The people craned their necks. The bunting stayed low. Skulk, Skulk, Skulk.
“It works,” cried Mr. Stephenson. “Fly left, fly left.”
The bird appeared right next to the path and was mostly shielded in a thicket of soft grass and daisy fleas. A small crowd gathered as he hopped on a dead stalk.
Then he put on a show for 30 breathtaking seconds without the need for binoculars. He darted into a bare serviceberry bush and shot straight across the path to land in a piece of orange winter berries until a mockingbird came in and chased him away.
Scott Schulman, the manager of the LeFrak Center, who walked up the hill just in time, looked around in amazement.
“That was remarkable, to say the least,” he said. “Impressive.”