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.

Garden Birds – Common Yellowthroat

When invading its haunts one is impressed with the vigorous personality of the male. He nervously raises his alarm with a variety of scolding, interrogative chirps and chattering notes and his dark inquisitive eyes sparkle with excitement through the black masks. He darts with nervous animation from place to place, then disappears in the dense cover only to appear again to denounce the intrusion.

~Alfred Otto Gross, in Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

Common Yellowthroat male on twig 1

Common Yellowthroats have been visiting the garden for a few minutes each day this week (click photos to enlarge)

Just last weekend, I mentioned to a friend that I have yet to get a decent image of a Common Yellowthroat, despite seeing them frequently on birding outings. While I will keep trying for a better photo, I am happy that at least one of these beautiful warblers has decided to come by the garden while I was prepared with appropriate camera gear. I say one, but it is possible there have been a few different individuals cruising through the neighborhood, based on what appear to be some subtle differences in the distinctive black masks of the males I have photographed the past few days. I have seen only one of the much more drab-colored female Common Yellowthroats in that time, and only for a few seconds, before she darted off, portrait-less.

Common Yellowthroat male on fence 2

Male Common Yellowthroats are readily identifiable by the yellow throat and bold, black mask, edged in blue-gray.

That black mask and their nervous, fidgety behavior, make me think these little guys are always up to something. At the garden, I usually see them hopping from twig to twig in some of the bushes bordering the fence.

Common Yellowthroat male on fence

Common Yellowthroat male pauses briefly on the fence

They often move down the fence row, going back and forth through the mesh, and end up in the tangle of grape vines at the corner, before flying off.

Common Yellowthroat male on fence 1

Moving along the fence row

On average, they are probably only with me for one or two minutes in any one visit. If I am out there long enough, one might make another appearance a couple of hours later.

Common Yellowthroat male on twig

Common Yellowthroat with a White-throated Sparrow in background

They are a bird of the tangled grasses, twigs and vines of brushy habitats, often near wetlands. Their distinctive witchety-witchety-witchety call is often heard before the birds are seen. They will readily pop up for a quick look if you pish or squeak on the back of your hand in appropriate habitat.

Common Yellowthroat male 1

Common Yellowthroats, as well as many other species, seem to enjoy the tangle of grape vines on the fence

Common Yellowthroats are believed to be one of the most widespread breeding warblers in the United States and probably occur in all 100 counties in North Carolina. Their nests are usually low to the ground in the fork of blackberry bramble or some other tangled location.

Common Yellowthroat male 2

These spunky male warblers are one of my favorites

I usually see them in the garden area most often in the spring. Once the nesting season is in full swing, I think they spend more time further down the power line, where the creek crosses through a huge patch of tree saplings, grasses and blackberries. A tough place to penetrate for we humans, but I hope to spend some time down there this summer, watching for the witchety bird as it goes about its daily routine.