Garden Birds – Summer Tanager

The summer red bird arrives sometimes in the latter part of April, and all through the summer his scarlet form enlivens and presents a beautiful contrast to the green foliage.

~J.W.P. Smithwick, The Birds of Bertie County, NC, In The Wisconsin Naturalist (a monthly magazine), 1890

Summer Tanager male on cherry branch

Summer Tanager males are our only “all red” bird (click photos to enlarge)

The tanagers are back! I wonder if Northern Cardinals migrated, would I get as excited about them as I do the return of the tanagers? Here in my woods, there are both of the usual eastern species – Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, but the latter are more common. And it is always a thrill to hear and see the first ones.

Summer Tanager male on twig

Summer Tanager male on twig near the garden fence

Summer Tanager males are considered our only all red bird. But, in looking at my photos, I can see that, while they are almost all red, many have varying traces of darkness in their wing tips. By comparison, the wings (and tail) of the Scarlet Tanager male are all black. While I see the Scarlet Tanagers in the trees near the house, they have yet to come down to the garden or the suet feeders, so I still don’t have any photos.

Summer Tanager male

Summer Tanager male with a hint of yellow in its wings

Molting young male Summer Tanagers may have patches or hints of yellowish-green in their feathers since they resemble females in coloration during their first year.

Summer Tanager female

Summer Tanager female

Female Summer Tanagers are much more difficult to see in the forest as they are yellow-green with some hints of darkness in their wings. I have yet to photograph a female Summer Tanager out by the garden this spring, so my only images are from two years ago, when one regularly visited my suet feeder outside a window. My camera schedule never seemed to mesh with her comings and goings, so my results were limited.

Summer Tanager male 2

Summer Tanager male on an overcast day

There have been a couple of male Summer Tanagers visiting the suet feeders this past week so I managed a few shots on nearby perches.

Summer Tanager close up of head

Summer Tanager with a bit of suet still on its beak

They typically come in fast, stay for just a minute or two, and then fly off. This is especially true of the feeder out by the garden, where it is much more open, and the birds probably are a bit more nervous.

Summer Tanager that just caught a bee on the wing

Summer Tanager that just caught a bee on the wing

Tanagers feed on a variety of fruits and insects, often snagging flying insects in the air. Summer Tanagers are often called “beebirds” for their habit of catching bees and wasps and for raiding wasp nests (often under the eaves of houses). I have seen “my” birds snag several small bees in mid-air.

Summer Tanager subduing a bee

Subduing a bee

They then typically fly to a branch and rub the bee against it to subdue it before swallowing.

Summer Tanager male calling

Male Summer Tanager giving a call note (nicitating membrane is covering the eye in this photo)

I usually hear the distinctive sounds of the tanagers before I catch a glimpse of them. The Summer Tanager’s song has been compared to that of an American Robin (but usually shorter and bit slurred). Males and females give a distinctive call sounding like pit-ti-tuck, often adding extra syllables, and repeated many times.

Summer Tanager on limb

Summer Tanagers winter in South America

I hope to see and photograph these spectacular birds frequently throughout the summer, until they head back to their winter home in South America next autumn. In the meantime, if my day has a tanager in it, it will be a good day.

7 thoughts on “Garden Birds – Summer Tanager

  1. One of my favorites too! I love to visit Hemlock Bluffs because the steep slope allows one to watch these birds hunt the bees up in the canopy. A treat to see.

  2. Always jealous of your fine photographs! We have Western Tanagers here is Northern California. I have forested property and it is amazing how hard it is to spot such a loud singer with a red head and yellow body!

  3. Love the summer tanager! Photo 5 is my favorite of the bunch. So striking. Honorable mention goes to Photo 7.

  4. Pingback: American tanagers’ colours and songs, new study | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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