One day last week we paid a visit to Boyce Thompson Arboretum, a state park east of the Valley known as fantastic birding spot (as well as just a lovely spot to walk around, with just the right blend of formal gardens and more natural areas). On a hot June day, it was almost deserted, but we ran into a couple other birders who saw our binoculars and were eager to share what they’d seen. One walked with us a ways back up the trail he’d just come down to point out an active Cooper’s Hawk nest, which was fun. The second mentioned he was keeping an eye out for a Lazuli Bunting someone had reported in the area recently. Hm, I thought, that would be nice to see – after getting my life Painted Bunting and Blue Grosbeak in Georgia, Lazuli was one of only two Cardinalid buntings missing from my life list.
After our picnic lunch I walked ahead into the demonstration garden area by myself. It was there that I noticed a dark, medium-sized bird on the ground. When I raised my binoculars to my eyes, I saw a decidedly buntingish bird, but without the white and tan breast of the Lazuli Bunting. Instead, this one had a dark purple-black body, a blue face, and a red nape. I stared at it, flabbergasted, until it flew away, then did an about-face to go back and consult the field guide still at the picnic table where my parents were lingering over lunch, because there was no way I’d just seen what I thought I’d seen.
Except the field guide confirmed it. Yes, that had definitely been a Varied Bunting.
The range map in Sibley shows this species as being confined to Arizona’s southeasternmost corner and describes its habitat as desert washes lined with dense mesquite, neither of which fits where I saw it, but they are listed on the Arboretum’s checklist as a rare visitor in summer. When I walked around the area where I’d seen it again I found an Indigo Bunting and a Blue Grosbeak but no Varied bunting, but I have no doubt of what I saw. Before we left I reported it in the visitor’s center, in the form of a note describing what I’d seen and where that the woman at the counter promised to pass along to whoever it is there who keeps track of bird sightings. Never before had I been the first person to report the presence of an unusual bird anywhere!
This leaves the Lazuli Bunting as the only member of the genus I haven’t seen yet, but if I’m lucky maybe I’ll spot one on our upcoming road trip. In any case, the Varied Bunting was a nice unexpected surprise.