Lazuli Buntings In The San Rafael Swell

Appropriately named after the blue gemstone lapis lazuli, the Lazuli Bunting is one of our most colorful western birds.  The persistent and conspicuous song of the male throughout the breeding season has been likened to an “acoustic barcode” that is unique to that individual bird.


lazuli bunting 3599 ron dudley

 1/5000, f/8, ISO 800, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not set up or called in (these settings were a blatant error on my part)

One of my best opportunities with the species was on an early summer camping trip to the beautiful and remote San Rafael Swell area of central Utah.  The males were flitting from perch to perch as they declared and defended breeding territories.  I seldom saw any females and assume they were mostly on their nests.  The background colors in these first two images are provided by the Entrada Sandstone that is so prevalent in the region.

Side note:  In many areas of their breeding range Lazuli Bunting nests are heavily parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds.  When this brood parasitism occurs (in some areas 100% of bunting nests are parasitized) bunting chicks rarely survive.



lazuli bunting 3035 ron dudley

  1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not set up or called in

The greasewood this time of year provides a visually appealing green perching alternative for the displaying males in this arid environment.



lazuli bunting 3546 ron dudley

  1/1600, f/8, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not set up or called in

 A close view in good light provides a good look at the plumage colors and bicolored bill of the species.



san rafael swell 640 ron dudley

The San Rafael Swell is one of Utah’s lesser known scenic and geologic gems.  The “Swell” is a huge (300 sq miles) 40-60 million year old dome-shaped anticline of shale, sandstone and limestone that has been eroded into myriad canyons, valleys, gorges, buttes and mesas.  Spring camping trips to this remote area are almost literally soul-restoring after a long, dreary winter.

But the Swell is now under attack.  In November, the BLM intends to auction off 82 parcels (144,000 acres) in three Utah counties for oil and gas development.  These parcels are within the San Rafael Swell and include many areas that the BLM has previously identified as areas that hold wilderness and recreational values (see Salt Lake Tribune article).

You can imagine how I feel about that…



31 comments to Lazuli Buntings In The San Rafael Swell

  • Jane Chesebrough

    gorgeous bird! Beautiful country! Oil and gas 🙁 why, in such beautiful country?!

  • Riverbirder

    Thanks to Betsy, I went to the above site and left a comment. Ron, I appreciate your work so much & I hope they preserve the land.

  • Sonja Ross

    Such a beautiful bird! Have Cowbird numbers increased for some reason? It looks like beautiful scenery too. That’s terrible that parts are being sold off.

    • Sonja, Yes, cowbird numbers have expanded due to human influence. For example, fragmentation of forests by human development opens up new habitat for them.

  • Ron, I have yet to see a Lazuli Bunting, and these photos make me so much more intrigued for that first, in-person view. So beautiful and beautifully captured. As far as the BLM issues, I won’t even get into my feelings about that but they mirror yours. And then we have former Interior Secretary Salazar joining the law firm that represented BP after the Gulf spill. It’s all so convoluted.

  • Betsy Livingstone

    Ron, I’m fascinated by the wide-open beak in the first photo, where the upper and lower mandibles are near-parallel, rather than the expected hinge angle. Is this unusual? I couldn’t find anything about it online or in my books.

    • Betsy, I don’t believe bird mandibles are hinged at the back like our jaws are so they can separate from each other quite a ways. This allows many species to swallow very large prey whole.

  • Charlotte Norton

    This is an absolutely stunning series Ron! Thanks again for sharing!

  • Fragile species in a vulnerable land is a perfect turn of phrase. And I am sad and angry that we so often put the species and the land in further danger – largely because of greed. And sadly your government and ours too are quick to respond to that greed – completely ignoring the consequences.
    And I love the bunting, and that first image where he is obviously singing his heart out is enchanting.

  • Betsy Livingstone

    Ron, I hope this link works – it’s for comments to the BLM on this issue, via SUWA. They need to hear *lots* of comments opposing the leases. (If it doesn’t just go the the SUWA web page.) Thanks so much for bringing this up – I would have missed it.

  • Deb Larson

    Beautiful Ron. Would like to visit that place one day. I get a couple LB’s in my yard every spring. I always take pics because they are so pretty!

    • I’ve yet to see one in my yard, Deb and I probably never will, though they’re fairly common a little further to the east right against the base of the mountains

  • Betsy Livingstone

    Your photos of the Lazuli Bunting are stunning – as always – thank you! And thanks for the heads-up about the BLM oil and gas lease auction coming up, Ron. I see that SUWA (Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) has filed suit. They have a website and a Facebook page, if anyone wants to follow developments (from the protect-wilderness point of view).

    • Betsy, Yes – SUWA has taken an active role in trying to rally support in opposing this short-sighted decision. My friend Terry Tempest Williams is on the SUWA Board of Directors and she can be very influential and persuasive but the cause needs much more than that, of course. I sure hope this decision is revisited. And changed…

  • Ron, that sandstone backdrop was custom made for the Lazuli’s shades of blue! I’ve never seen one. 🙁

    Extremely sorry to hear about more short-sighted decisions coming from our “Bureau of Real Estate Sales”.

  • Susan Stone

    I have never seen a Lazuli Bunting, but would love to. It is absolutely shameful that the BLM would open up this gorgeous, ancient place to oil and gas exploration. I am really sick of the selfish greed that passes for our government. I guess they don’t have souls that need restoring? It’s definitely hypocritical to auction off designated wilderness areas. I share your feelings about it. Just looking at your photo of the Swell and imagining being there brings peace to me. Thank you for posting it.

  • Fragile species in vulnerable land. Heartbreaking, Ron. And re the auctioning off of land that has evolved to its current form over 40-60 million years, I’m enraged. I’m glad you have shared both bird and land with us. Thank you.

  • tana hunter

    These are beautiful birds, and I, too, love their song. The swell should be a National Park of it’s own, but there is little chance of that with the “money above all else” attitude that is running our government. Such a shame.