by Sam Jolly
I slammed on the golf cart brakes, taking us skidding to stop from a whopping 12 miles per hour. “Is that a nest?” We got off the golf cart and examined the low-hanging tangle of Spanish moss. Sure enough, suspended in the middle of the clump was a nest, and inside were two eggs. The eggs were white and speckled with brownish red towards the tapered ends. The nest and eggs fit the description of a painted bunting, however, this would be only the third active bunting nest to be found in North Carolina. While they are fairly common birds in their range, their nests are difficult to spot, as they tend to be high above the ground and hidden within hanging clumps of Spanish moss.
We decided to leave the nest alone for now, but we marked the location on a GPS so we could continue to check on it over the season. The nest was found during my summer internship on Bald Head Island, a small coastal town in southeastern North Carolina. The island is home to about 160 full-time residents, many seasonal tourists, and what is suspected to be the largest population of painted buntings on the east coast. We’d spent the past few weeks banding and doing radio telemetry on painted buntings all over the island, but we had only recently started looking for nests. Part of the purpose for studying painted buntings was to determine their uses of different habitats and what needs to be conserved to ensure a stable future for the species. Figuring out breeding and nesting habitats is very important when trying to know what habitats need to be conserved. Bald Head Island was a great place to study this species because much of the habitat on the island is intact still, so it was relatively easy to find out what types of habitats were being utilized the most.
We checked up on the nest every couple of days. Every once in a while, we would drive up on it to find the female sitting on the eggs or perched on the edge of the nest. One day, when we peeked inside, we no longer saw eggs, but small, alien-looking newly hatched birds. It was amazing to watch these birds grow from hatchlings to fledglings, until one day they were gone. We found many more nests before the end of the season, but none as accessible as that sone. A few nests were found by tracking females with radio telemetry, but most were just found by pure luck and good eyes. Being a part of a conservation-related project is fascinating experience. By the end of the season I had learned so much about painted buntings, yet I was only left with more questions. Questions that don’t quite have answers yet, but with a little time and a lot of research, the answers are well within reach.