Flashes of Red

I want to create red in a world that often appears black and white.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Another gray day here in the woods, but the plants I put in the ground yesterday are appreciating it. Looking out the window, I can see spots of color in the yard – the blooms of Coreopsis, some scattered Phlox that had covered much of the front yard for weeks, the cheery Green and Gold, and a Blue Flag Iris in one of the wildlife pools. Popping up here and there around the yard are a few bright spots of red of the remnant Wild Columbines (most have already gone to seed). The color red is an interesting one in nature. It’s not all that common, but when it is, you notice it. Red is considered by many to be the most powerful color in the spectrum. It is a color associated with love, with fire, and aggression. It is also a color that may warn of danger (our Stop signs and red traffic stoplights for instance). Many species that are distasteful or poisonous are marked with bright red or orange to warn would-be predators to leave them alone (or else).

This week, I encountered two of the brightest red flashes in our part of the natural world. One was the return of one of my favorite birds – the Scarlet Tanager. Our waterfall pond worked its magic again by luring in a newly arrived male Scarlet Tanager. I saw it splashing on one of the wet rocks near the small waterfall as I walked by the window. I managed a couple of quick photos before it flew off. Ironically, shorty afterward, I saw a male Summer Tanager in the same spot (no photos as it saw me and flew). What an amazing difference on the brightness scale of color between those two related birds. And though our state bird, the Northern Cardinal, is bright red, it still somehow appears pale in comparison to the vibrant red of a Scarlet Tanager.

-A male Scarlet Tanager (the first of the season for me) takes a quick bath at the waterfall on one of our wildlife pools (click photos to enlarge)

The other flashy red this week has been that of the throat feathers of a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird that has decided it likes to perch on the wire rim of a tomato cage a few feet outside our kitchen door.. These specialized feathers are called a gorget (pronounced gor-jit). They are named after the protective metallic throat collar worn in days of yore by a knight-in-armor. Unlike the brilliant red feathers of the tanager which are colored by a pigment in the feathers, the male hummingbird’s red feathers are the result of iridescence. The platelet-like structure of the feathers causes light to reflect and refract off of them creating color like what you see on an oily film on water – the color changes depending on the angle you view it. In some angles, the throat looks dark, even black. But a slight turn of the head and you see a fiery red (or sometimes orange) flash. Male hummingbirds use this flashiness to attract females (love) and to warn off potential rival males (aggression).

-When viewed from one angle, the male’s gorget appears dark…

-A slightly different angle shows the brilliant red flash of color

Here’s a quick video clip showing how quickly the color changes. The focus is a bit soft as it was shot through the glass of the kitchen door.

— Even on a gray day, the male’s gorget produces a bright flash as he turns his head

So, if this gray day finds you feeling a little low, try looking at something red to brighten your spirits.

18 thoughts on “Flashes of Red

  1. You got a great shot of the tanager, Mike. I like your exploration of the color red. You mention that “It is a color associated with love, with fire, and aggression.” I think another reason it is so striking to humans across all cultures is that it is the color of blood and is associated with life and the life force.

    Just my two cents worth.


  2. Our walkabout had us hearing red (Tanager), but not seeing it.

    I was appreciative of the snowy white azalea blossoms drinking in a bit of this morning’s rain…

  3. Red is the only color I can’t wear because it makes me feel too conspicuous! I love seeing the wildlife that comes to your pond. One day soon I’ll have a pond too…fingers crossed.

  4. The video of the little hummingbird was interesting! We really need to “pay attention” when out in Mother Nature. You never know what you will see!

  5. Your photos are outstanding! What photographic equipment do you use? I use my iphone which is useful for landscapes. I eventually use the photos as “sketches “ for studio art.

    • Thanks, Jeff. I am using my iPhone more and more with the improved cameras especially for landscapes and some macros. But, for wildlife, I use a Canon DSLR with a variety of lenses (both telephoto and macro).

  6. Lovely flashes of red! At my feeder my reds are among the woodpeckers (Downy and Red-Belly), Cardinals, and House Finches (bright red this year!). Flashes of yellow with lots of Goldfinches. Let the spring continue!

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