I Found My Quarry at the Quarry

If you happen to live in Texas, Oklahoma or Arkansas, seeing a Painted Bunting probably isn’t that big of a deal to you. But if you live here in the Ozarks of Missouri, finding one is a bit more challenging. They occur sporadically in the southwest part of the state—Hercules Glades Wilderness and Henning Conservation Area are the two locations usually associated with Painted Buntings.

Hercules Glades is well out-of-the-way, one of those places without an easy way to get there. Rather appropriate for a wilderness I suppose, and I’m not enough of a hiker (translation: “fat and lazy”) to access the “good” parts anyway. So I settled on Henning CA (officially Paul and Ruth Henning Conservation Area), 1500 acres located within the city limits of Branson, making access a snap, other than the traffic. But it’s in Branson, with all the tourists, traffic (I may have already mentioned the traffic) and tackiness that come with it. In case I’m not being clear, I  don’t care much for Branson.

But a birder will put up with all sorts of privations to find their target species, so I figured I could survive being in Branson for a while, especially if I got to see a Painted Bunting (henceforth PABUs because I’m tired of typing “Painted Bunting”). Ironically, survival almost became a real issue.

The first trip was in late June. Dayna and her brother Billy came with me and we didn’t arrive until 11:00, three hours later than I had planned. It was already approximately 1200°, humidity was 123% and we were completely unprepared. Well, not completely. We did have sunscreen, but no water, and you can’t drink sunscreen. Well you can, but you shouldn’t. We walked the Glade Exploration Trail, just over a mile and though it starts in the shade of the woods, much of it’s length is out on the open glades. We saw very few birds—Yellow-breasted Chat and the wrong bunting, an Indigo. That’s it, other than the Turkey Vultures soaring ominously overhead.

By the time we finished the trail loop and returned to the car, we were all dehydrated and seriously at risk of heat stroke. Blasting the air conditioner, we soon found a gas station where I stuck my head under the cold water in a restroom sink. I may have even drank some of it. I can’t speak for Dayna or Billy. We did drink a lot of bottled water though. But Dayna soon had a raging migraine and our trip was effectively over. Strike one.

I returned not quite a year later, mid-May. I hit the parking lot at a more respectable 8:00 a.m., with water, and managed to beat most of the heat. Unfortunately, other than the Indigos, there were no buntings. Blue Jays, Prairie Warblers, a Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Turkey Vultures and a tour helicopter, but no PABUs. Strike two and time to rethink my approach.

Over this past winter, I was browsing around in the MOBIRDS mailing list archives where someone (I don’t remember who and didn’t save the message, else I’d offer credit where it’s due) mentioned the quarry at Willard as being a reliable location to find PABUs. Now all I had to do was wait for warm weather and the PABUs to return.

The directions started at the US 160 exit off of I-44 on the north side of Springfield. Follow US 160 west for 4 miles, until you see a McDonald’s on the left (circled in Yellow). Turn right and then almost immediately right again. Now you’re right on the south rim of the quarry (circled in red.) A screen of Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) lines the narrow area between the quarry and the road, blocking any real view of the quarry itself. When we visited the site the first week of June, Dayna pulled over to let me get the cameras from the back seat and when I opened the door, there was a PABU singing right beside the road! Seriously?? Yep, it was definitely the same song we had listened to on and off for the last two hours on the drive over.

I played his song back at him for about 30 seconds to draw him into the open, then shut it off. This must have been enough to thoroughly piss him off based on the harassment he heaped upon us in return. We stood in the road photographing him for five minutes while he berated us before losing interest and returning to his regularly scheduled business. I took three hundred photos (Dayna took an additional two hundred) we got back in the car and headed for another nearby stop.

After all the effort, sweat and the near-death experience, the whole thing was actually rather anticlimactic, too easy even. But now I’m complaining about being hanged with a new rope, so I’ll let it go. Anyway, there’s about a half mile of redcedars beside the road and while we didn’t search the entire length, I suspect there are PABUs the all along the way.

While we’re at it, I also suspect that PABUs can be found at the nearby Rocky Barrens CA. It was a fall-back area for us, unneeded this day and we didn’t stop by, so I can’t say for sure, but I’m wouldn’t be surprised. The area is only a mile or so due north of the quarry and is roughly half glades, half woodland so the habitat is appropriate. The official bird list for the area doesn’t list PABUs, but there are only 36 species listed which makes me think it’s based on a very small amount of data. I don’t think the birding pressure is very heavy and I now wish we’d have taken the time to go look.

So, if you are also wanting to see a PABU in Missouri, I have just given you exacting directions to the easiest one you will ever see (in Missouri.) And just to be safe, remember to take plenty of water.

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