Sunday, May 10, 2009

In the woods... Western Tanager

Western Tanager, male, 28 May 2008 by Lois Miller.


"I saw this bird...." Many of my non-birding friends and acquaintances begin their conversations with me with these words. After 35 years of obsessing over birds this is to be expected, I guess. In the Pacific Northwest, it is often the Northern Flicker which generates the most notice and questions among casual nature observers... except in May.

In May, with the Neo-tropical migration in full swing, the unstable weather patterns in the Pacific NW cause birds to migrate in pulses. Nearly every spring migration, there will be a few days in May in which Western Tanagers arrive over night and drip from the trees and bushes in the local backyards. "I saw this amazing yellow bird with a bright red head! What was it?" is what I expect to hear for the next few weeks.

I've already heard the husky "pit-er-rik!" call of the first migrant Western Tanagers this week on my walk into work. It won't be long until this first trickle of birds signals a release of the main floodgates of tanager migration.


Western TanagerWestern Tanager, female or immature male, Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 7 July 2007 by Greg Gillson.


These birds are slightly smaller than American Robins. The males are bright yellow with red faces and black back, wings, and tail. There are two wide wingbars; often the upper wingbar is yellow and the lower is whitish. The bill is pale. They sing hoarse, robin-like phrases. Females are similar, but with greenish-yellow plumage and contrasting gray back, wings, and tail. They lack the red face. Lewis and Clark first discovered these birds for science in Idaho in June 1806.

Western Tanagers breed in Western mountains, in the north from southern Alaska east to the Northwest Territories, and in the south from California east locally to western Texas. Their preferred habitat is conifer forests and mixed conifer and deciduous woods. As discussed, the spring migration often takes them through the lowlands. This includes the Great Basin deserts where their flaming red-orange heads contrast greatly with the dull blue-green of the sage brush or juniper trees. These birds winter primarily in Mexico and Guatemala, though a few may be found rarely in winter in southern California.

Even though they live mostly in the mountains, if you have a small grove of large Douglas-fir trees in your backyard, or live among large ponderosa pines, you may have these birds nesting in your lowland backyard. If so, you can attract them to a birdbath or, especially, a fountain with running water. Western Tanagers eat mostly insects, which they glean by crawling through the branches high in the tree canopy. Sometimes they sally out to grab insects on the wing. They also eat fruit and berries. You may be able to attract them to your backyard feeder by offering grapes or orange halves. They may also sip nectar from your hummingbird feeder.

I wish to thank Lois Miller for use of her wonderful photo of the male Western Tanager. See more of Lois Miller's photographs at Rare Bird Arts and at Lois Miller Photographs

This post was featured on the 100th edition of the Blog Carnival, "I and the Bird," which was hosted by the Nature Blog Network on 14 May 2009.