A life bird for a president

The true story of how former President Jimmy Carter saw his first Painted Bunting
By Phil Hardy | Published: 6/25/2012

BRD-C0812-500“Yesterday I heard a Painted Bunting singing down by the railroad tracks,” my mentor and former next-door neighbor Robert A. Norris told me.

Bob, who died in 2010 at age 87, was a noted ornithologist, botanist, author, and expert on the birds of Georgia. He had discovered the bunting in June 2002 while conducting one of his songbird-survey routes in our hometown, Americus, Georgia. Americus is in Sumter County, and the bird was the first Painted Bunting found in the county and probably all of southwestern Georgia in more than 25 years. In June 1976, Bob had found buntings in Americus that may have been breeding. By 2002, they were just a memory. The nearest area where the species regularly breeds is more than 60 miles northeast of Americus along the Ocmulgee River corridor.

Knowing that I was a neophyte birder, he wanted to ensure I saw the bird Southerners call the nonpareil — “without an equal.” The truth is that when I started birding in 1996, if I could have seen a male Painted Bunting and had drawn my last breath, I would have died a most contented man.

My birding comrade, Clive Rainey, and I and three others departed early on the morning of Sunday, June 23, for the five-minute ride to the suspected site of arguably the most brightly colored and loveliest North American passerine.

Clive was fortunate enough to have worked for Habitat for Humanity International for 33 years. When Habitat founders Millard and Linda Fuller conceived the notion of simple, decent housing for the poor, Clive was their first volunteer. In his role as fundraiser and chief promoter for Habitat, he visited every state in the union and countries all over the globe. In his travels, he often found time to watch birds. Now retired and living in Guatemala, his life list tops 1,400 species.

View “Clive Rainey: A life of service,” a video about Rainey’s career with Habitat for Humanity

Before our outing, Clive had seen Painted Bunting in Costa Rica and Mexico. For the rest of us, it would be a life bird. Within minutes, I located the bird. Its soft, cheerful song declared its territory from the top of a dead tree. Transfixed as if by a supernatural spell, we admired the avian wonder like it was a rock star on stage illuminated by the morning sun. It was a birding moment I’ll never forget.

Later, Clive and I found a second male, and within days we witnessed a female copulating with a male. We were at the site every day checking on the buntings. We felt as though we had discovered a buried treasure.

The next week at his office, Clive mentioned to Millard Fuller that he had seen Painted Buntings over the weekend in Americus, not far from Habitat headquarters. Fuller suggested to Clive that he should tell President Jimmy Carter, a long-time Habitat for Humanity supporter and an avid birdwatcher. Carter lives in the town of Plains, which is only nine miles from Americus. Clive told Millard that he was certain President Carter had seen Painted Buntings in his travels. Nevertheless, Fuller insisted Clive should inform the president.

As one might suspect, most ordinary, mortal people just can’t pick up the telephone and call a former U.S. president. Clive devised another plan.

Do you remember President Carter’s rather colorful brother, Billy? Well, Billy’s widow, Sybil, worked at Habitat with Clive. So Clive told Sybil about the bird, knowing she probably had a secret, unlisted number for her famous brother-in-law. The next day at work, Sybil approached Clive and said simply, “You’re going to get a telephone call.”

When his phone rang, the voice on the other end said, “Clive, this is President Carter. I hear you found Painted Buntings in Americus. I’d like for you to show them to Rosalynn and me.”

In Clive’s career, he and President Carter had crossed paths often. Every year, Habitat hosts the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project in which the Carters give a week of their time to help build houses somewhere in the world. During the brief phone call, the two set a date, time, and location to meet and see the buntings.

Clive decided to keep the field trip secret in order to prevent media, well-wishers, or rubberneckers from wanting to see, hear, or be photographed with Carter. He told no one about the outing. Clive and the president agreed to meet along the Heart of Georgia Railroad tracks near the Habitat for Humanity Global Village and Discovery Center on Church Street in Americus. Carter was familiar with the location because his father had worked in a building that once stood on the site.

IN THE GAP: Americus, Georgia, is one of a handful of Painted Bunting nesting sites in between the eastern and western breeding ranges.

IN THE GAP: Americus, Georgia, is one of a handful of Painted Bunting nesting sites in between the eastern and western breeding ranges.

Unusual spot for painted beauties

The Painted Bunting occurs in two distinct breeding populations. The western breeding range extends from New Mexico to southern Alabama and from eastern Kansas to northeastern Mexico. The eastern breeding range stretches along the Atlantic coast from east-central North Carolina south to Cape Canaveral, Florida, and west to Macon, Georgia.

A few isolated breeding areas have been found in between the two main populations, including one at Americus, Georgia.

Buntings were first documented in town in 1976, but they were not seen here again until 2002. That year, we observed at least two males, and in July, I saw a male and female copulating just a few hundred feet from the spot where President and Mrs. Carter saw their life bird. In the summer of 2003, we located up to four Painted Buntings, and in June 2004, our census revealed five males singing and on territory.

Unfortunately, from 2005 through 2010, we looked for but could not find a single Painted Bunting along the traditional site in Americus. Then, in 2011, I found four males and two females at another location south of town. At least three birds returned in May 2012. No one knows whether our buntings came from the eastern or western population, but the birders of southwestern Georgia like me are just glad the birds are here. — Phil Hardy

Painted Bunting Photo by Landon Starnes

Painted Bunting
Photo by Landon Starnes

‘Bird? What bird?’

The day came for their rendezvous. A most conspicuous man dressed in safari clothing — about as out of place as a California Condor in New York City — arrived at Habitat’s main lobby, where Clive had his office. The man wore “one of those little squiggly communication device things in his ear,” Clive recalls, so it was clear that he was a member of the president’s protection team.

Clive walked over to the man and asked, “Are you with the Secret Service?”

“Well, yes, I am. Why do you ask?” came the agent’s reply.

“I’m Clive Rainey, and I am the one who is showing the Carters the bird today,” Clive said.

The agent, after writing Clive’s name on the palm of his hand with a ballpoint pen, asked, “Bird? What bird?”

Clive, not being one to play games with the agent, responded, “Look, President Carter called me wanting to see the bird. Now I’m going to walk down to Church Street and meet the president as we agreed.”

While Clive walked, the Secret Service agent followed and talked into his shirt cuff. As Clive approached the meeting place, another Secret Service agent, a short, stocky woman with a binocular hanging around her neck, approached him. She was holding a clipboard full of paper she had printed from the Internet. Pointing and tapping her finger on her papers, she proceeded to explain to Clive that the Painted Bunting is not found as far inland as Americus.

“You must have the Painted Bunting confused with the Indigo Bunting,” said super sleuth. “The Painted Bunting is found mainly on the Gulf coast and from Florida up into the Carolinas along the Atlantic coast. The Indigo is the bird we have here,” she postulated, apparently proud of her supposition.

There was just one problem with the agent’s hypothesis: No one bothered to tell the Painted Buntings.

Clearly she had done her homework. After all, her job was to protect the former president from crazy people, and who is crazier than a birdwatcher? We birdwatchers even have surveillance equipment like binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras with long lenses that could be considered a threat if a former POTUS was in close proximity.

Now you and I both know that certain birds appear similar and create tough identification challenges. But how in the wide, wide world of sports could an experienced birder like Clive confuse an Indigo Bunting with a Painted Bunting? The difference is like night and day. One looks as if you melted a box of crayons and dripped the colors all over it, while the other appears to be, well, indigo — that prismatic color that lies between blue and violet on the color spectrum.

Even a novice observer could not confuse the two species.

Indigo Bunting  Photo by Joshua Clark

Indigo Bunting
Photo by Joshua Clark

Clive calmly asked the agent to turn around and invited her to examine a bird perched on an electric power line near a utility pole.

“Indeed that bird is an Indigo Bunting,” he declared, as he pointed toward the blue beauty. “If you will follow with your binocular about one field of view to your left, you will find the Painted Bunting,” Clive stated authoritatively.

The agent pinched the clipboard of papers between her knees as she raised her binoculars to find and focus on the Indigo. As you know well, the Indigo Bunting is a handsome and brightly colored bird. The male is no slouch by any stretch of the imagination. When the agent followed the power line to the left of the Indigo to locate the Painted Bunting, her mouth gaped open. It was one of those breathtaking “Oh my God” moments.

Her reaction reminded me of a saying, source unknown: For those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t understand, no explanation is possible.

A minute later, President and Mrs. Carter’s motorcade arrived. More agents wearing dark glasses and squiggly communication devices in their ears poured out of the black Chevy Suburbans with heavily tinted windows. The Carters laid eyes on the bird shortly after stepping out of their vehicle.

As Clive and the president conversed, it became apparent that this Painted Bunting was a life bird for the Carters. They had looked for the species during a trip to South Texas but had come up empty. And now here it was, in a place it hadn’t been seen since the year Jimmy Carter was elected to the White House.

Jill Stuckey, a longtime friend of the Carters and a birdwatcher and photographer, recently asked President Carter what he remembered about seeing the bird a decade ago. He talked about it as if he’d seen it the day before.

“Rosalynn and I heard about the Painted Bunting being sighted in Americus, although it never had been this far west in Georgia,” he said, apparently unaware of the 1976 sighting. “And we hurried over there, and luckily, there was a Painted Bunting sitting on the power line, right above the railroad. And we found out that the people in Americus had discovered four Painted Bunting nests in the woods right there. So we watched for a while, and the Painted Bunting came down and landed on the fence right in front of us, and I quick counted seven different colors on this beautiful bird.”

To this day, he added, it’s the only Painted Bunting he has seen.

Birders understand the joy and excitement that comes from seeing a life bird, especially one as beautiful as the Painted Bunting. The species returned to Americus in subsequent years, and together, Clive and I showed the buntings to many people. For most of them, Passerina ciris was a life bird. By far, the most famous people to see the nonpareil were President and Mrs. James Earl Carter Jr. of Plains, Georgia.

It isn’t every day that one gets to show a former president and first lady a life bird, but one summer day 10 years ago, my good friend Clive Rainey did.

Phil Hardy is retired from the electric utility industry. He is an avid bird photographer and the historian of the Georgia Ornithological Society. He gives presentations about birds, helps Boy Scouts earn the bird-study merit badge, and travels around the world to see birds. Phil and the editors thank Jill Stuckey for her assistance with this article.

World birders, crane supporters

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter began watching birds during a family trip to Mount Kilimanjaro in 1988. The next year they volunteered to count birds along the Breeding Bird Survey route that runs near Plains and Americus, Georgia, and participated with local birdwatchers for several more years.

Their work with the Carter Center, a nongovernmental organization that works worldwide to resolve conflicts and fight disease, has allowed them to bird in dozens of countries. They’ve also taken birding trips to Alaska and Texas.

Since 2003, the Carters have been supporters of Operation Migration, the group that leads Whooping Cranes by ultralight aircraft each fall. They’ve visited the pilots and ground crew at stopover sites, and at their first meeting, they even helped set up the cranes’ travel pen. “Due to their involvement with Habitat for Humanity,” says Heather Ray of Operation Migration, “they knew how to build things, so they volunteered.”

  • The Carters look for birds at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas in 2006.

  • Carter talks with Father Tom Pincelli (far right), former chairman of the American Birding Association, during a visit to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas in 2006 while Mrs. Carter and other birders and security officers look on.

  • President Carter saw his first Boreal Chickadee during a trip to Alaska in 2005. The people in the photo (left to right) are Carter; Bob Dittrick, Carter's guide and co-owner of Wilderness Birding Adventures; Adam Kent, pointing out the chickadee; and Kirk Hoessle, president of Alaska Wildland Adventures.

  • The Carters pose for a photo outside their home in Plains, Georgia, with Joe Volpi (left) and Mark Oberle (middle) in the late 1980s. The Carters counted birds with Volpi, a high school teacher, and Oberle, an epidemiologist, along the Breeding Bird Survey route that runs near Plains and Americus. They participated in the survey for five or six years.

  • On March 11, 2010, the Carters went on a bird walk at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site's Boyhood Farm in Plains, where the president grew up. In this photo, they chat with Joe LaFleur (right), their guide for the day and a producer of birdwatching DVDs.

  • Here's another scene from the Carters' bird walk at the Boyhood Farm in March 2010. Secret Service agents (in vests in the forefront of the picture) keep watch on the Carters while guide Joe LaFleur walks to the president's left. Four others accompanied the group.

  • President Carter poses for a snapshot with Jill Stuckey at his 80th birthday party in 2004. Stuckey is a longtime friend of the Carters as well as a birdwatcher and photographer. She took the photo of the Carters that appears on the opening spread of our feature story "A life bird for a president" and she shot the video below of President Carter describing his Painted Bunting sighting.

Carter describes his Painted Bunting sighting: