Category Archives: Tanagers

Male scarlet tanager stands out from other birds

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Photo by Jeana Chapman • A male scarlet tanager forages close to the ground, which is not typical behavior for these birds. Tanagers, although brightly colored, spend most of their time in the tree canopy obscured from view.

I received an email from Lewis and Jeana Chapman detailing a dazzling discovery they made.

The couple have been adding a few new birds to their bird list and decided to give me an update on what they’ve been seeing. The Chapmans reside in the community of Laurel Bloomery in Johnson County, Tennessee. The wooded slopes of Pond Mountain where they make their home provide an attractive location for migrating birds, as well a summer residents.

“The tree swallows returned this spring to nest in our bluebird box,” Lewis wrote in his email reporting his new sightings. “The great crested flycatcher has moved its nest from the front porch to the barn. Last year the flycatchers raised five chicks on the front porch. The nest got so full the chicks were perched around the edge.”

Some new additions to their list have included golden-crowned kinglet and the Northern flicker. “Most recently we spotted a scarlet tanager,” Lewis continued.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter A male scarlet tanager brightens shadowy woodlands with a flash of tropical colors yet remains mostly inconspicuous in the forest canopy.

They had never seen a scarlet tanager at their home. Over the years I have heard from other readers left stunned by the tropical beauty of the male scarlet tanager. That description would not be that far off. While the scarlet tanager resides in the United States and Canada from April to October each year, this bird spends the rest of the year in South America. Citizens of the United States and Canada get the better part of the bargain when it comes to hosting this bird. After the summer nesting season, male scarlet tanagers lose their brilliant red plumage and look more like the greenish females. By the time they get back to the tropics for the winter, this striking bird has transformed into a rather drab specimen.

I’ve written in previous columns about the scarlet tanager, which is one of those birds that always takes an observer’s breath away upon first seeing it. Of course, it’s the male scarlet tanager that bewitches observers with his dazzling feathers of vivid red and jet black. Female and immature tanagers are a dull olive-yellow in coloration with dark wings and tails.

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A female scarlet tanager is a study in contrast from her mate with her dull greenish-yellow plumage being much less vibrant than the male’s bright red and black feathers.

During their summer stay in the region, scarlet tanagers largely prey on insects. Although renowned as a fruit-eating bird, the scarlet tanager primarily feeds on fruit during its migration flights and on its wintering range in the tropics. This tanager breeds in deciduous and mixed deciduous-evergreen woodlands across the eastern half of North America. I’ve often heard that oaks are a favorite tree for this woodland dweller.

It’s unlikely that you’ll run across the nest of a scarlet tanager. These birds nest high in trees, often locating their nests 50 feet or more above the ground. After building a nest, a female tanager will incubate her three to five eggs for about two weeks. It’s during this time that her inconspicuous appearance is a plus, helping her blend well with her surroundings. After the young hatch, the parents are kept busy feeding the nestlings for another 10 to 15 days.

The website All About Birds notes that the population of scarlet tanagers has declined in the last half-century. Between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, scarlet tanager numbers declined by 14 percent. The environmental organization Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2.2 million, with 93 percent of these birds spending some part of the year in the United States and the other seven percent breeding in Canada. These birds do poorly in forests that have been harvested for lumber. Other causes of habitat fragmentation probably also affect the well-being of scarlet tanagers. It’s worth keeping an eye out for any other signs of decline in this beautiful birds.

The scarlet tanager is a fairly common songbird during the summer months, but it also has a less common relative that can be found in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. The male summer tanager is the only entirely red bird found in North America. Lacking the scarlet tanager’s black wings, the summer tanager’s red feathers are also of a rosier hue.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter The Summer Tanager is the only all-red bird in North America. It is less common in Northeast Tennessee than the related Scarlet Tanager.

 

While I have seen summer tanagers in Tennessee on occasion, most recently at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee, I saw my first summer tanager during a spring trip to South Carolina many years ago. Overall, the summer tanager has more of a southern stronghold than the scarlet tanager, as the summer tanager’s range also extends into the southwestern United States.

Both of these tanagers are birds fond of dense, undisturbed woodlands. Most of the time, unfortunately, these tanagers reside in the dense woodland canopy. They’re more often heard than seen, producing a song similar to an American robin’s, but usually described as somewhat more raspy. The apt description I like for these two tanagers is that their songs sound like one sung by a hoarse robin with a sore throat.

Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including seven-colored tanager, flame-colored tanager, lemon-rumped tanager, green-headed tanager, golden-chevroned tanager, azure-shouldered tanager, fawn-breasted tanager, metallic-green tanager, emerald tanager, gilt-edged tanager, golden-naped tanager, opal-crowned tanager, blue-gray tanager and silver-beaked tanager.

The tanager wasn’t the only unexpected feathered visitor to the Chapman home this spring. The same week the tanager made its appearance, a male hooded warbler also visited with the Chapmans. “This we found ironic because of your email address,” Lewis wrote. For readers who may not have noticed, my email address is ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’ve used this email address for many years to celebrate one of my favorite birds.

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Photo by Lewis Chapman • A male hooded warbler also impressed the Chapmans during this small songbird’s recent visit.

The Chapmans also provided me with photos of all their colorful birds. In subsequent emails, they also informed me of some other unusual visitors. “One of our strangest visitors was an albino American goldfinch,” Lewis also revealed in his email. “Over this past weekend, we had rose-breasted grosbeak and indigo bunting show up.”

Many of these birds — the rose-breasted grosbeak, the scarlet tanager, the indigo bunting — always wow observers experiencing their first observation of them. Our two native tanagers — scarlet and summer — are definitely two memorable birds for anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing one. It’s a great time of year to get outdoors and keep your eyes open for a splash of bright color. You never know what you may see when you lift your binoculars.

 

County’s Summer Bird Count finds 104 species

Members and friends of the Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society enjoyed a busy June, conducting its two annual summer bird counts last month. To the satisfaction of everyone involved, these counts encountered normal temperature after a spring count this past May that actually saw some snowfall when it was held on May 6.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Nesting Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers can be found at higher elevations in Unicoi County. This woodpecker is usually considered a winter bird in the region, but a few nest in the mountains.

According to long-time compiler Rick Knight, the chapter holds these summer counts in the counties of Carter and Unicoi to provide a set of baseline data on the diversity and numbers of breeding birds in these two local counties. This supplements other summertime data collection projects, such as the long-running Breeding Bird Survey (one route in Carter County) and the Nightjar Survey (three local routes).

The Carter County Summer Bird Count was initiated shortly after the conclusion of the Tennessee Breeding Bird Atlas project. The Unicoi County Summer Bird Count’s origins are more recent, with this survey making its debut in June of 2014. The fourth consecutive Unicoi County Summer Count was held June 17 with 21 observers in five parties looking for birds on Unaka Mountain, as well as such locations as Erwin, Limestone Cove and Flag Pond. Morning weather was favorable, but scattered rain in the afternoon hindered some efforts. A total of 104 species were tallied, down slightly from the three-year average of 111 species. Highlights included a Bald Eagle, Merlin and six Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, including a nest with young. A total of 20 species of warblers were tallied, including Swainson’s Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler and Prairie Warbler. Other notable birds include Hermit Thrush and Blue Grosbeak.

I took part on the count, looking for birds in the Limestone Cove area of the county with Brookie and Jean Potter, Charles Moore, and David and Connie Irick. Beyond bird, we saw other wildlife, including skunks, white-tailed deer, rabbits, groundhogs and various butterflies.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Red-winged Blackbird begs food from its attentive mother.

A highlight of our count took place near the Appalachian Trail along Highway 107 at Iron Mountain Gap where we found a pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers delivering food to young inside a nesting cavity in a tree easily viewed from the roadside. In addition, a singing Chestnut-sided Warbler put on quite a show for a group of admiring birders enchanted with this bird’s dazzling plumage and energetic antics.

The total for the count follows:

Canada Goose, 73; Wood Duck, 22; Mallard; Wild Turkey, 19; Great Blue Heron, 13; and Green Heron, 3.
Black Vulture, 300; Turkey Vulture, 28; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Bald Eagle, 1; Broad-winged Hawk, 7; Red-tailed Hawk, 4; American Kestrel, 2; and Merlin, 1.
Rock Pigeon, 67; Mourning Dove, 87; Great Horned Owl, 1; Barred Owl, 2; Chuck-will’s-Widow, 4; Whip-poor-will, 9; and Chimney Swift, 61.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 15; Belted Kingfisher, 4; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 13; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 6; Downy Woodpecker, 10; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Northern Flicker, 7; and Pileated Woodpecker, 8.
Eastern Wood-Pewee, 7; Acadian Flycatcher, 24; Eastern Phoebe, 30; Great Crested Flycatcher, 3; and Eastern Kingbird, 14.
White-eyed Vireo, 4; Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 26; Red-eyed Vireo, 95; Blue Jay, 53; American Crow, 88; Fish Crow, 7; and Common Raven, 7.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 36; Purple Martin, 14; Tree Swallow, 70; Barn Swallow, 77; and Cliff Swallow, 149.
Carolina Chickadee, 51; Tufted Titmouse, 43; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 18; Brown Creeper, 3; House Wren, 14; Carolina Wren, 42.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Most swallows, like this Barn Swallow, have fledged and will join their parents in migrating south in the coming weeks of late summer.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 5; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 7; Eastern Bluebird, 33; Veery, 25; Hermit Thrush, 4; Wood Thrush, 37; American Robin, 281; Gray Catbird, 31; Brown Thrasher, 12; Northern Mockingbird, 24; European Starling, 534; and Cedar Waxwing, 49.
Ovenbird, 29; Worm-eating Warbler, 2; Louisiana Waterthrush, 4; Black-and-white Warbler, 12; Swainson’s Warbler, 6; Common Yellowthroat, 2; Hooded Warbler, 37; American Redstart, 4; Northern Parula, 19; Magnolia Warbler, 3; Blackburnian Warbler, 2; Yellow Warbler, 1; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 15; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 29; Pine Warbler, 1; Yellow-throated Warbler, 3; Prairie Warbler, 3; Black-throated Green Warbler, 16; Canada Warbler, 9; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 2.
Eastern Towhee, 55; Chipping Sparrow, 49; Field Sparrow, 8; Song Sparrow, 120; Dark-eyed Junco, 37; Scarlet Tanager, 27; Northern Cardinal, 83; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 4; Blue Grosbeak, 2; and Indigo Bunting, 82.
Red-winged Blackbird, 84; Common Grackle, 58; Eastern Meadowlark, 9; Brown-headed Cowbird, 29; and Orchard Oriole, 1.
House Finch, 33; American Goldfinch, 96; and House Sparrow, 17.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Young birds, like this Northern Cardinal, point to a successful nesting season for most of the region’s birds.

Next week, I’ll post results from the Elizabethton Summer Bird Count.

 

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To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or friend Stevens on Facebook.

Fruit increases chances of visit from scarlet tanagers

 

Last summer, Annette Bryant emailed me some beautiful photos she had taken of birds at her home in Marion, North Carolina.

“Photographing birds has been a passion of mine for many years,” Annette wrote to me. “I look forward to our blueberries getting ripe because I see certain birds only at that time.”

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Photo Courtesy of Annette Bryant • This male Scarlet Tanager adds a splash of tropical color whenever he appears.

One of those birds, she noted, is the scarlet tanager. Anyone who has beheld a scarlet tanager is hardly likely to forget the observation. Thanks to a recent observation I made of one of these birds, I have been reminded of some of the breathtaking birds — including the scarlet tanager — that make the mountains of northeast Tennessee, western North Carolina and southwest Virginia their summer home. The extraordinary appearance of the male scarlet tanager is certainly one that sets it apart from most other songbirds.

This tanager is not typically a feeder visitor, but bird enthusiasts can lure these birds with fruit, such as orange slices placed in special feeders or simply spiked onto the branches of backyard trees. As an added bonus, orange slices can also attract birds such as brown thrashers, Baltimore orioles and gray catbirds. The scarlet tanager indulges its fondness for fruit by incorporating various berries into its diet. In addition to the blueberries mentioned by Annette, other fruit-bearing trees and shrubs — mulberry, elderberry, serviceberry and wild cherry — will make your yard or garden more inviting to this somewhat elusive bird.

I usually have a few scarlet tanagers in residence around my home during the summer months, but I haven’t seen one so far this spring. However, my luck changed while taking part in the Summer Bird Count for Carter County, Tennessee. The count, conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club, has been a long-running survey of summer birds in the region. Along with fellow birders Jean and Brookie Potter, Chris Soto and Mary-Anna Wheat, I got a timely reminder of the beauty of the scarlet tanager while we searched for birds on Holston Mountain near Elizabethton, Tennessee. A stunning male tanager showed up and entertained us with fantastic looks for several moments.

The male scarlet tanager boasts a brilliant plumage of crimson red paired with black wings and tail. Of course, like many other birds, the female scarlet tanager makes no real claim to the common name with her comparatively drab greenish plumage. However, the scientific name, Piranga olivacea, gives a nod to the olive-green plumage of females, young males and even adult males when they’re molting their feathers.

So, why is it so difficult to lay eyes on such a brightly colored bird? The answer rests with this bird’s daily routine, which is usually conducted among the upper woodland canopy in such tall trees as oaks and poplars.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter A male Scarlet Tanager brightens shadowy woodlands with a flash of tropical colors.

Fortunately, male tanagers produce a distinctive song. Upon first hearing it, listeners might mistake the hidden singer for an American robin. Listen a little closer, however, and the song sounds as if it is being delivered by a hoarse robin with a sore throat. The male tanager also makes a vocalization described as “chip-burr” that is easily heard.

If we were to see a scarlet tanager in a rain forest in South America, we might not be so surprised by its vibrant plumage, usually associated with many tropical birds. The scarlet tanager is certainly better attired than most birds to provide observers a glimpse of a creature that would indeed look more at home in the jungle.

Worldwide, there have traditionally been about 240 species of tanagers. Experts have changed some of the ways they classify tanagers, so that figure is no longer set in stone. Tanagers are a New World family of birds, concentrated mainly in the tropics of Central and South America. Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including yellow-backed tanager, blue-and-yellow tanager, seven-coloured tanager, gilt-edged tanager, green-capped tanager, beryl-spangled tanager, opal-rumped tanager and blue-gray tanager.

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A print of Scarlet Tanagers by early North American naturalist and painter John James Audubon.