It was drizzling rain, in near-freezing temperatures, but the birders arrived before the sun rose, as soon as the gates to the park on the Maryland side of Great Falls had opened. With binoculars to their eyes, cameras around their necks, and masks on their faces, they peered into the brush and rocks around the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, desperately searching for the elusive flash of blue, red and green.
“There. There it is,” a woman said.
“He’s perched. Now he went to the right. And I lost him,” said Frank Witebsky, an 82-year-old retired pathologist from Silver Spring, Md., looking into his binoculars.
“Are you kidding me?” said Carla Morris, who lives in Potomac, Md., staring at the hillside in disbelief that this glorious bird was here, of all places.
It was a male painted bunting, a bird known for its kaleidoscope of colors – blue head, red underparts, and green back. It’s a bird commonly seen in Florida and other parts of the south but rarely in Maryland.
It’s unclear why the bird made its way this far north, but the painted bunting is one of several species included in a recently published study from the National Audubon Society demonstrating that climate change is causing a shift in birds’ ranges during winter and breeding seasons.
The unusual sighting of the bird, along the Potomac River, was first documented last week on the popular birding website eBird. As word spread through listservs and Facebook groups, excited birders poured into the park from across the region, hoping to catch a glimpse – or perhaps even a photo.
Standing between the 18th and 19th locks of the C&O Canal, they came with their toddlers and infants, pushing strollers and adjusting masks on children’s faces. They were amateurs and professionals, ages 6 months to 82 years old, originally from Hong Kong and Switzerland and Wisconsin and New York.
On Saturday, a warm and sunny day for the start of the new year, more than 1,100 people visited the park – about double the size of the typical crowd seen on a nice winter day. By 3 p.m., a couple of hours before the park’s closure at sundown, more than 80 cars were in line to get in.
As the temperatures dropped and rain fell over the region Sunday, devoted birders returned. By midday, more than 100 people had visited the park; the majority said they had come to see the bird, according to one visitor-use assistant for the National Park Service.
One of the first people in the park was Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland’s ambassador to the United States. The 58-year-old has been birdwatching for half a century, ever since his parents gave him a bird guide as a boy growing up in Switzerland. He has photographed birds all over the world and has published his pictures in several books and publications in Kenya and South Africa.
But he had always hoped to see the painted bunting someday, somewhere in the United States. “To see it close to D.C., that was absolutely unrealistic,” he said. At about 8:30 a.m. Sunday, a birder next to him pointed it out, and he saw it just long enough to capture it with his camera lens.
It was, he said, “exceptional.”
As he walked out of the park after spotting the bird, a woman passed with her two children.
“Did you see it?” the woman asked. He told her he did, and offered to show her the photo on his camera.
“Oh, my gosh,” she said. “So cool.”
Further down the path, dozens of birders lined up along the canal, looking up at brush and trees on the hillside across from them. The bird, which generally forages in shrubby areas and overgrown fields, stayed low and hidden between rocks and grass.
But Morris was holding out hope that she’d catch a glimpse.
“I live for this,” she said. “I wish I’d brought my kids out here today.”
She saw her first painted bunting years ago in Florida, on vacation with her family. They had driven an hour and a half to see the bird from afar, but it was a bucket-list item, “a bona fide lifer,” as she and many other birders called it.
“They look like a splash of tempera paints splashed all over a canvas,” she said.
But that was in its natural habitat. She never could have imagined the chance to see one here, so close to her home. “In the winter, are you kidding?” she said.
It was a moment she needed now more than ever. She had spent the holidays grieving the death of her father, who in Wisconsin died of covid-19, the illness that can be caused by the novel coronavirus. She had wept watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, listening to a performance of Pentatonix on TV at home with her children.
This brief and unexpected flash of beauty, after a time of so much sorrow, “It’s just magical,” she said. “It’s a magical way to start the new year.”
A few feet away, Vickie Kwong and her husband, Benson Kwong, had arrived at the park from their home in Rockville, Md., for the second day in a row. Saturday’s crowds were so large that it was nearly impossible to park, Vickie Kwong said. But the couple returned, hoping to see the bird they had heard so much about on social media.
Vickie Kwong has watched birds for years, in Central and South America, Florida and Europe. But it was not until the pandemic that she started searching for birds in her own neighborhood. “This has been what’s keeping me sane,” she said.
In the past several months, Benson Kwong, 61, has also become invested – describing it to their children as their own version of the “Pokémon Go” video game. The couple looks at eBird every day, and they often drive for hours in hopes of spotting a new bird. They even made a book with their photos.
“We go bird crazy,” Vickie Kwong said.
To see the painted bunting, here, just minutes away from her home? Vickie Kwong’s eyes lit up at the thought. She clapped her hands together in excitement.
“That would make my year,” she said.