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.

Spring Birds

The presence of a single bird can change everything for one who appreciates them.

~Julie Zickefoose

An annual highlight for us living in these woods is the arrival of the spring migrants. They all bring a touch of excitement and joy when you see or hear the first of their kind arriving at the breeding sites (our woods) or passing through to places higher up or farther north. Our woods have been alive with the sounds of Wood Thrushes, Ovenbirds, and a few warbler species these past few weeks, plus the calls of our local nesters, the bluebirds, wrens, and cardinals. Last weekend was the first screeching call of a Great Crested Flycatcher, and two nights ago, the booming sound of a Chuck-wills-widow, one that I have not heard here in over a decade. But certain birds carry a special excitement for me – the first hummingbird, the first melodious Wood Thrush, and the first tanager among them.

And so, this past week we heard the calls of Summer Tanagers, and two days ago, while I was loading some stuff into our truck, I heard the chip-burrrr call of a Scarlet Tanager just behind me. I turned, and there was a female, snagging a mulberry not 10 feet from me! No camera, of course, so I just watched as she ate one more berry, and then flew off. The mulberry has al lot of berries, but few are close to being ripe, so there is not a lot for them to feed on just yet. Plus, the squirrels have discovered the tree and, true to their nature, have decided to claim it by eating the unripe berries and cutting the tips of many branches off and letting them fall to the ground. I’m afraid the berry buffet will not be as large this year for the birds.

On my next walk by the tree, a male had flown in and sat for a minute while I watched. That was enough to prompt me to take a break from the chores, get the camera, and sit at the shop entrance to see what might happen. A few minutes later, he returned.

A male Scarlet Tanager snagged a fly in the mulberry tree (click photos to enlarge)
Their red color is so intense against the green background of leaves
A rare pose out in the open while he looks for ripe berries
There are only a few ripe berries right now so he had to come down close to me for this one
Stopping for a moment in full sun

The male put on a nice show as he searched the branches for ripening fruit. The tree usually makes for a busy background, but I’ll take that as long as I can watch these incredible beauties up close. A pair of Summer Tanagers flew in at one point, but were chased away by the male Scarlet Tanager. Just another day in the woods.

Oh, and the grosbeak show continues, now with the arrival of the migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. I’m amazed that there are still a few Evening Grosbeaks still making regular forays to the yard. The Rose-breasted Grosbeaks seem a bit intimidated by the noisy big beaks, so it is somewhat rare to see them both on the feeder at once. Of course, as I was writing this, a male of each species shared a few moments on one feeder, until I reached for the camera. But, I”m not going to complain. The Carolina Wren singing 3 feet from the kitchen door and the bluebirds sitting on the garden gate right now are telling me that it’s all good, that spring is here, and so are the birds.

And then there are the grosbeaks

Red and Black

Without black, no color has any depth…

~Amy Grant

A simple post this morning of something I rarely see, a top side view of a male Scarlet Tanager. They are still visiting the mulberry tree out back and have consumed all the easy to reach berries, so they are exhibiting some impressive acrobatics to snag the remaining fruit. This provides some great views of their amazing color scheme.

Scarlet tanager male dorsal view

Dorsal view of a male Scarlet Tanager (click photo to enlarge)

Still Hanging

Red is the ultimate cure for sadness. 

~Bill Blass

I’ve been working in the shop on a project and, as was the case last week, the tanagers are still at it, although the mulberry supply is dwindling fast. I am surprised at how tolerant they are as I walk to and from the shop door, but I am happy they allow me to take a break from my chores and admire their redness. Here are a couple of shots of a male Scarlet Tanager that was chowing down on the berries yesterday. By the way, I think I have now seen at least three separate males in this tree based on their slight differences in yellow patches.

Scarlet tanager male in leaves

Male Scarlet Tanager scoping the branches for fruit (click photos to enlarge)

Scarlet tanager reaching for berry

The berries that were easy to reach are mostly gone now, so it requires a little extra effort to grab one

Scarlet tanager getting berry

The birds are hanging upside down or flying up from underneath the branch to grab berries

Scarlet tanager eating berry

They usually pull off berry and stem and then perch nearby to chew up the berry and spit out the stem

Mulberry Moments

Green gives and red receives. Nature is colour coded!

~Sonali Mohan

Some of you may have known him, and, even if you didn’t, you may have one of his bluebird boxes in your yard. Jack Finch started a non-profit, Homes For Bluebirds, to help restore his beloved Eastern Bluebird to the skies of the southeast. He built thousands of quality bluebird nest boxes and was tireless in his efforts to promote ways to enhance bluebird populations. When I worked at the museum, I made frequent trips out to his farm to purchase nest boxes for schools and to talk about bluebirds. He was always experimenting with ways to provide more food for bluebirds from raising mealworms to selecting for late blooming dogwoods that would produce berries later into the season. For awhile, he promoted mulberry trees as a food source, and that is how I ended up with a sapling many years ago.  I planted it in what was then a sunny spot near my shop, and now, the tree produces berries every spring for the local wildlife. I hope Jack would not be disappointed that his tree has more green and red than blue.

It turns out that Scarlet Tanagers are frequent visitors and berry pickers in this tree every spring. This week, as I was going in and out of the shop while tinkering on some woodworking projects, I kept seeing tanagers feeding. So, I brought out the camera, set up the tripod at the door, got comfortable in a chair, and waited.

Male scarlet tanager with berry

Male Scarlet Tanager eating a mulberry (click photos to enlarge)

Scarlet tanager female reaching for berry

Female Scarlet Tanager reaching for a berry

Female scarlet tanager

Female Scarlet Tanager in a rare spot of sunlight in the branches

The tree leans out over the driveway and has one branch down low at eye level. There are only a few spots where a bird can perch that present a clear shot through the branches and leaves, but it was great fun watching them come and go. They are active feeders in that they often have to flutter their wings to maintain their balance while reaching out to the twig tips for berries, adding to the photography challenges.

male scarlet tanager 1

This male landed in spot where the green background provided a nice contrast to his brilliant red plumage

At first, I was usually seeing a pair, a male and female, coming together. On one visit, another male showed up! And a few seconds later, a male Summer Tanager flew in (but avoided having his picture taken), along with what I first thought was an immature male Summer Tanager. It had a lot of yellow coloration mixed with the red. In reading online, it seems that some older females may have a lot of red overtones (females are usually yellow), and this one’s colors are more blended than patchy. I’m not exactly sure which sex this one is, but now I’m leaning towards a female, as the immature males I have seen in the past were more splotchy.

Immature male tanager

A Summer Tanager with a lot of red and yellow coloration

That certainly was a highlight of my mulberry viewing – five tanagers at once! In between tanager feedings, I saw a lot of other species going about their daily routines.

female cardinal

This female Northern Cardinal stopped in for a quick visit

Swainson's thrush

A Swainson’s Thrush was feeding on the few remaining American Holly berries on a nearby tree

Wood thrush

A pair of Wood Thrush made regular foraging trips to the area just outside the shop


An Ovenbird calling nearby finally came for a quick visit

Chipmunk watching me

An Eastern Chipmunk, with both cheeks full, sat and watched me for about 5 minutes before deciding I was safe and moving on

A few notables that I saw but didn’t get photos for included Chipping Sparrows, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, the family of Carolina Wrens that fledged from inside my shop, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Blue Jays, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler. But, the stars of the show are definitely the male Scarlet Tanagers.

side view male scarlet tanager

The red is so intense on a male Scarlet Tanager that it makes a cardinal almost seem pale

I think Thoreau summed it up nicely in his description of a male Scarlet Tanager…

The tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.