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.

a colorful bird perched on a tree branch: A rare painted bunting photographed Sunday by Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland's ambassador to the United States, at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Maryland.© Jacques Pitteloud/Jacques Pitteloud A rare painted bunting photographed Sunday by Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland's ambassador to the United States, at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Maryland.


“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, looking into his binoculars.

“Are you kidding me?” said Carla Morris, who lives in Potomac, 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 heads, red underparts, and green backs. 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, via 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 old 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., just a couple of hours before the park’s closure at sundown, more than 80 cars were still 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 of mo 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....


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Copied partially from Washinton Post by SNUMA WM - January 03, 2021