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