Western Tanagers & an “invisible” experience

I have seen western movies where an Indian felt safe, amid a battle, because he claimed to be invisible. This is a situation that I’ve often wished for and strangely enough it has seemed to have happened a few times during my pursuit of wildlife photos. There is no other way to explain it. After pursuing bird after bird, only to have them “spook” and fly away, sometimes a lucky situation will arise.

One time in late July, when camping at Lake Cleveland, we found a shallow pond at one side of the campground. It was the result of snow-melt and was receding quite rapidly each day. In a “devil-may-care” mood, I stuck a stick upright in the mud of that pond. I then proceeded to place my chair a scant 20 feet from the stick. It was as if I wasn’t there. Sixteen different species alighted, either on that stick, or at my feet, before moving in to drink. Hairy Woodpeckers, Pine Grosbeak, and others; but the most noticeable were Western Tanagers. If you would have told me that this would happen, I’d have said that you were crazy.

The tanager is one of my favorites and his red head makes for a breath-taking sight. The bird needs a good supply of carotene in its diet to enhance the red coloration. Slightly smaller than a Robin, it has a black back and tail and a bright yellow body and yellow wing bars. The female is colored like the male – minus the red head.

This bird prefers the coniferous forests of the western United States during the summer months, but winters in central Mexico and further south. In the early spring this species always pays a visit to our yard, where it is much attached to the sugar water we put out for the Orioles

Scarlet Tanager: A Special Kind of Bird

Red is striking! It is definitely eye catching. This applies to things in nature too. Fruits and flowers, which are red, stand out against a green background. The beauty of a red rose has been espoused for centuries.

The wild world is fascinating because of its vast variety. If a bear appears, it without doubt takes center stage. The same can be said about certain birds. I have my favorites, but can enjoy even the most common species. But when a red bird appears, it overshadows anything else around. Even the red upon the heads of male woodpeckers, makes them more attractive. The red flash of a hummingbird, when the sun hits it, is breath taking. It’s amazing what a little red can do!

The Scarlet Tanager is a bird of the stories that my mother, who grew up in Indiana, told me in my youth. It is an eastern species that I thought I would never get a chance to photograph. Its brilliant red body, contrasted against black wings, is extremely pleasing. Well, I got my chance one April day during spring migration on South Padre Island in Texas. Birds are tired, after flying across the Gulf of Mexico, and are more prone to sit. Many tanagers would sit at arm’s length and allow observation. We also observed the bites of “chiggers” that lurked in the grass. To get photos of this bird was worth the discomfort.

A hoarse “chip-burr” is the call of this smaller tanager that fills the eastern range where the Western Tanager is not. The two species overlap somewhat in the Great Plains. Fruit is a favorite food, and the tanagers we saw in Texas were feeding on grapefruit halves.

Tanagers are tropical species, but a few come north in the spring, only to make the long, long trip back when daylight shortens. In summer, they can be found in a wide variety of woodlands.

scarlet tanager

Piranga olivace