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Lazuli buntings come like the tide

I am frequently asked to identify a bird someone has seen in their backyard or on a hike. The description often fails to paint a recognizable image in my mind. I dislike being unable to encourage an interest in the natural world. I am often left offering the advice: “If you can send me even a poor cellphone photo, I can probably give you an answer. (I get a lot of cellphone pictures.)

This exercise is even more daunting when someone tries to describe a song. The English language offers a poor selection of adjectives to describe sounds, rhythm or music.

However, this spring my job has been a little easier. Several times someone has said, “I heard this song in my yard, but I have been unable to catch a look at the singer ...”

My response almost before they finish is, “It’s likely a lazuli bunting.”

Before going any farther, let me clear up the pronunciation of the name. Most birders agree that the emphasis is on the first syllable and not the second, though I still hear the occasional debate.

The song is rich, loud, hurried and cheery. (Do those adjectives work for you? I hope so.) And you will rarely see the performer. This is surprising considering the male is one of the most brightly colored birds in our area, rivaled only by orioles, bluebirds and tanagers.

The bright, turquoise-colored head, back and rump is impressive. Males tend to sing from the top of a shrub or small tree, which should make them obvious. However, they are shy, diving for cover at the first hint of a threat such as an approaching human.

While the numbers of many birds change little from year to year, the abundance of lazuli buntings varies considerably. At Crater Lake I can hear their song right up to the rim some years, while in others I have to continue some miles down the slopes to find them among the willows and alders. It reminds me of the coming and going of the tides.

This year there seems to be an abundance of lazuli buntings in the valley. I have a pair in my yard for the first time in well over 10 years.

While many finch-like birds around the world are called buntings, including snow buntings, rustic buntings, and lark buntings, lazuli buntings are not closely related to these birds, but are part of a group of birds centered in the American tropics. All are stunning, especially the painted bunting of Texas and Florida. The painted bunting is so brightly colored that it reminds my wife of a kindergartener’s art project with its blue head, red belly and green back. In eastern forests, they have the all-blue indigo bunting, while in the west we have what I consider the more beautiful lazuli bunting.

If you are not fortunate enough to have a pair in your yard, a hike through the oaks on the Table Rocks should offer a view with a bit of stealth and patience.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

Terry Croft of Central Point submitted this photo of a lazuli bunting at Ashland Meadows for the 2014 Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest.