Varied bunting spotted in Grafton, first documented sighting in Wisconsin history

A varied bunting perches in a tree Saturday at Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve in Grafton. The bird, a male, was observed by dozens of birders Saturday and marked the first documented sighting of the species in Wisconsin history, according to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. The species is mostly found in Mexico.
A varied bunting perches in a tree Saturday at Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve in Grafton. The bird, a male, was observed by dozens of birders Saturday and marked the first documented sighting of the species in Wisconsin history, according to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. The species is mostly found in Mexico.

GRAFTON - Birds were active about 6:35 a.m. Saturday as Bob Dohr of Pewaukee walked on a gravelly path atop the bluff at Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve in Grafton.

A pair of northern cardinals, the brilliant red male and the tawny female, foraged near the trail. And nearby a smaller, darker bird but with a cardinal-like shape also showed.

Dohr, a Journal Sentinel editor, raised his camera and captured some images.

The three birds were close enough for Dohr, an enthusiastic amateur birder and photographer, to compare and contrast.

"I thought (the darker bird) might be a melanistic cardinal," Dohr said, referencing an animal with darker than normal pigmentation. "But the size wasn't right so I really didn't know."

Dohr continued his hike. But it didn't take long for the identity of the mystery bird to be revealed.

And boy was it different.

Within minutes expert birders Alex Mann of Port Washington and Braden Meyer of Grafton came along the same trail and stopped when they saw a streak of blue among the greening foliage.

What they at first thought could be an indigo bunting, a bright blue songbird that nests in Wisconsin, turned out to be a close (genetically) but distant (geographically) relative.

The men scrutinized images of the bird on their cameras, shook their heads at the improbability of the evidence but had no doubt what they were seeing.

A varied bunting perches in a tree Saturday at Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve in Grafton. The bird, a male, was seen by dozens of birders Saturday and marked the first documented sighting of the species in Wisconsin history, according to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. The species is mostly found in Mexico.
A varied bunting perches in a tree Saturday at Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve in Grafton. The bird, a male, was seen by dozens of birders Saturday and marked the first documented sighting of the species in Wisconsin history, according to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. The species is mostly found in Mexico.

It was a varied bunting, a species mostly found in Mexico.

And one that until Saturday had not been documented in Wisconsin.

Mann posted the find at 7:11 a.m. on social media sites.

As word spread a happy shiver went through the Wisconsin birding community. Dozens placed Lion's Den Gorge in their digital mapping apps and hurried to the scenic park on the Lake Michigan shore in Ozaukee County.

The sighting was confirmed as the state's first record of the species, said Mark Korducki of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. The organization is the official keeper of state bird records.

Moreover, it is the farthest north the species has ever been documented, according to eBird, an online bird reporting system run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Only two other varied bunting sightings, one along Lake Erie in southern Ontario and one in Pennsylvania, have been recorded in eastern North America.

The varied bunting sighted in Wisconsin was likely blown north and west by the strong winds and weather systems in recent weeks, said Tom Prestby, Audubon conservation manager who lives in Green Bay.

When it got near Lake Michigan, it chose to drop down into the habitat provided by Lion's Den Gorge rather than be pushed over the watery expanse of the lake.

The breeding range of the varied bunting is predominantly in the deserts of Mexico but extends slightly into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, according to Cornell. The species prefers desert thorn forests, stream thickets, scrubby woodlands and overgrown clearings. It seldom visits feeders, avoids populated areas and feeds mostly on insects.

Adult male varied buntings are a "stunning mosaic of rich plum, crimson, cherry red, and lavender-violet," according to the Cornell description. Female and immature varied buntings are brownish.

In its native habitat, birders hoping to see a varied bunting are advised to walk through scrubby stream corridors, listening for singing males and watching for movement low in the brush. Early morning or late afternoon are the best times.

Fortunately for Wisconsin birders, the first-known varied bunting in their state chose to frequent a group of trees and shrubs along a trail in a public park.

At 12:30 p.m. Saturday, a group of 20 gathered on the trail and looked east into the budding foliage atop the bluff where the bird had last been seen.

Birders gathered Saturday to view a varied bunting at Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve in Grafton. It was the first documented sighting of the species in Wisconsin history.
Birders gathered Saturday to view a varied bunting at Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve in Grafton. It was the first documented sighting of the species in Wisconsin history.

Fog hung in the air but wasn't so thick as to obscure birds flitting in the trees and hopping along the ground.

Species seen included a blue-gray gnatcatcher, blue jay and black-throated blue warbler.

But the varied bunting proved elusive for the group until 12:45 when Tom Prestby of Green Bay spotted it.

Over the next 45 seconds, the bird gave good looks as it flew on short sorties to grab midges then return to a perch on a branch. It then continued its feeding but dropped out of sight.

Until about 1:15 it would disappear briefly then show again, delighting the crowd, especially the latest arrivals who had yet to see it.

The birders included Daryl Tessen, 84, of Appleton, who started his day about 4 a.m. on a WSO outing in White River Marsh near Berlin.

That event led by Tom Schultz of Green Lake was highly successful, including the finding of a rare yellow rail.

"But nothing compares to this," Tessen said. "I might be 84 but I feel like a kid when I see a beautiful, new bird in the state."

Tessen, a birding book author, former WSO president and mentor to many, is considered the dean of Wisconsin birders. The varied bunting was the 435th bird species he's sighted in Wisconsin, most on record.

Schultz and Carl Schwartz of Fox Point also traveled to Grafton upon conclusion of the field trip.

A varied bunting perches in a tree Saturday at Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve in Grafton. Saturday marked the first documented sighting of the species in Wisconsin history, according to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. The species is mostly found in Mexico.
A varied bunting perches in a tree Saturday at Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve in Grafton. Saturday marked the first documented sighting of the species in Wisconsin history, according to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. The species is mostly found in Mexico.

The group also included the youngest state resident to see the species. Prestby was accompanied by his 18-month-old son, Ari.

Tom Prestby was one of the few who had ever seen a varied bunting before, in Arizona.

"It's a spectacular sight," Prestby said. "Even in the desert southwest it's one of the most stunning birds. And that's saying something."

The varied bunting is the latest in a wave of first-ever bird species sightings in Wisconsin. In the last 12 months, the list includes the flame-colored tanager, American flamingo, ancient murrelet and fieldfare.

The varied bunting was also sighted periodically Sunday morning at Lion's Den Gorge. Mann and Meyer, who initially shared the finding, returned to the site Sunday and posted updates on its presence.

"(Lion's Den Gorge) is a great migrant (bird) trap," Meyer said. "It's always fun to help others see something new. This has been an extraordinary weekend. And you never know what else we might be down there, too."

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: varied bunting found in Grafton first sighting in Wisconsin history