Tag Archives: Scarlet Tanager

Stunning summer tanager a lesser-known relative of scarlet tanager

Photo Provided by Helen Whited • A male summer tanager visits a feeder during a migration stop in southwest Virginia.

Helen Whited, a resident of Richlands, Virginia, recently emailed me a photo of a feathered visitor in her yard asking for help with identification. She had already narrowed down the possibilities. “I’m thinking a tanager of some kind,” Helen wrote in her email.

When I opened Helen’s attached photo file, I recognized the plump, red bird perched on her feeder near a suet cage. I wrote an email back, informing Helen that her visitor was indeed a tanager. The summer tanager is not rare, per se, but these birds do not seem as common in the region as the related and better known scarlet tanager. Farther south, summer tanagers are much more prevalent in the spring and summer months.

Helen also reported seeing her first ruby-throated hummingbird of spring on April 25. “It’s later than usual, but they’re here,” she wrote in an email.

She added that several neighbors in Richlands, Virginia, reported seeing hummingbirds as early as April 21, but they seemed to be shunning her until the morning of April 25.

Since the last couple of columns have been about hummingbirds, I want to shift the focus this week to Helen’s other visitor.

If the casual birder or nature enthusiast is aware of the summer tanager, it’s usually as the less showy cousin of the more fiery and vibrant scarlet tanager, one of the most striking birds inhabiting woodlands in the eastern United States.

That’s a shame, for many reasons.

Photo by Ronald Plett/Pixabay.com • A male summer tanager perches in the leafy canopy.

First and foremost, the summer tanager holds one unique distinction. The male summer tanager is the only completely red bird in North America. Other birds known for their red plumage — Northern cardinal, house finch, vermillion flycatcher — show other colors in their feathers besides red.

The strawberry-colored male summer tanager is often difficult to spot due to a propensity to keep hidden against the green leaves of the forest canopy. The website “All About Birds” describes the female as “mustard yellow” in her coloration, which is rather apt. Female summer tanagers are usually less greenish than female scarlet tanagers. The female is even harder to spot than the male, though both sexes have a very distinctive chuckling call note.

Over the years, different local spots have proven reliable for finding summer tanagers. Large trees near the Steele Creek Park Nature Center in Bristol, Tennessee, used to be a fairly dependable location for these tanagers during late spring and summer.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this work featuring a family of summer tanagers.

The summer tanager is classified in the genus Piranga, which includes the scarlet tanager as well as the western tanager of the states west of the Rocky Mountains. This genus also includes the flame-colored tanager, white-winged tanager and red-headed tanager. Experts now classify this genus with members of the cardinal family and have separated the Piranga tanagers from other New World tanagers.

The song of the summer tanager has been described as similar to that of the American robin. Like the scarlet tanager, the summer tanager is fond of fruit and berries, but it also eats insects, often catching them on the wing.

Confined mostly to the eastern United States during the nesting season, the summer tanager doesn’t range as far north as the scarlet tanager, making its stronghold in the Gulf and southern states.

The summer tanager’s scientific name, Piranga rubra, translates as “red bird.” It’s not really clear why this tanager acquired the word “summer” in its common name. After all, both the summer tanager and scarlet tanager are only present in North America for a brief nesting season from late April to early September.

Other birds besides tanagers are on the move as spring migration continues. Get outdoors and see what wanders into your yard or garden. To share your own observations, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook.

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.

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.”

ScarletTanager-Bryant

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.

Scarlet-Tanager

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.

Scarlet

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

Taste of tropics arrives with Scarlet Tanagers

In late April and early May, once the oaks, the maples, the poplars begin spreading out new green leaves to create a concealing woodland canopy, a familiar song can be heard from the treetops. 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 producer of the hoarse but melodic song is a Scarlet Tanager, one of the most showy birds of Eastern woodlands from April to early October. Like the warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other songbirds, the Scarlet Tanager is migratory. They spend the winter months in the tropical forests of Central and South America. The Scarlet Tanager is better attired than most birds to provide us a glimpse of what life must be like in the tropical rain forests, which are a riot of color and sound.

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

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

It takes only one sighting to sear the vision of these vibrant birds into our retinas, as well as into our memories. The Scarlet Tanager boasts a brilliant plumage of crimson red paired with black wings and tail. Of course, this is the male. 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 molting their feathers.

Although once nominated as a candidate for state bird by the school children of Minnesota, the Scarlet Tanager ultimately failed to gain the designation. Instead, as perhaps is fitting for the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” the Common Loon represents Minnesota as official state bird.

The related Summer Tanager is less widespread in Northeast Tennessee, but males of this species are no less dramatic in appearance than the Scarlet Tanager. Male Summer Tanagers are a rosy-red over all their body. Females, with a dull greenish plumage, are relegated to the background. She can be distinguished from her counterpart, the Scarlet Tanager, because of their darker wings and larger bills.

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.

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.

The Summer Tanager holds the distinction of being the only all-red bird in North America. Birds like Northern Cardinals and Scarlet Tanagers also have some black in their plumage.

I’ve seen Summer Tanagers at Steele Creek Park in Bristol and Willow Springs Park in Johnson City. Sadly, over the years my sightings of this attractive songbird have been few and far between. My best sighting of a male Summer Tanager took place during a spring visit to Fripp Island, S.C., many years ago. Most of the Summer Tanagers I have observed in Northeast Tennessee have been females.

On the other hand, I usually have a few Scarlet Tanagers in residence around my home during the summer months. If the woodlands at my home fail to attract this bird, I can usually make a visit to higher elevations on Roan Mountain and Holston Mountain to gain an exciting glimpse of this beautiful bird.

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.

In the western United States, the Scarlet and Summer Tanagers are replaced by Western Tanagers and Hepatic Tanagers. During a visit to Salt Lake City in Utah in 2006 I saw several Western Tanagers.

Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including Flame-colored Tanager, Green-headed Tanager, Golden-chevroned Tanager, Azure-shouldered Tanager, Fawn-breasted Tanager, Saffron-crowned Tanager, Metallic-green Tanager, Turquoise Tanager, Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager and Diademed Tanager.

Scientists, who have to occupy themselves, have recently given fresh consideration to the relationship of many tanagers to the other birds of the world. As a result, many of the North American tanagers are now closely allied with such birds as Northern Cardinals and more remote from tropical tanagers.

The Scarlet Tanager is not typically a feeder visitor, but you can lure these birds with 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 Baltimore Orioles and Gray Catbirds.

Fond of fruit, the Scarlet Tanager incorporates various berries into its diet. Landscape around your home with fruit-bearing trees such as mulberry, serviceberry and wild cherry to make your yard more inviting to these elusive bird.

Yes, the Scarlet Tanager is more often heard than seen, but it is a bird worth seeking out. A sighting of one will amaze you.

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