For the Birds: Scarlet tanagers can be elusive

Photo by Chris Bosak A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

This has been the first spring/summer since I can remember in which I have not seen a scarlet tanager. I was hot on the trail of a few in the spring, but I never did spot the birds.

Granted, my birding this year has been hampered by foot ailments, but I have still spent enough time out there that I feel I should have seen one or two of these beauties.

The scarlet tanager is one of the most sought-after species in New England in the spring. Their electric red bodies with contrasting black wings make it one of our most unique and beautiful birds. The problem with tanagers is that they mostly hang around the tops of tall trees. Even a bird as bright as a teenager can remain hidden in a full canopy of oak or maple leaves.

When I had my house in the woods a few years ago, I had scarlet tanagers nesting nearby and they would come to the yard frequently. During those years, I would see dozens of tanagers. Well, probably not dozens of different scarlet tanagers, but dozens of sightings of the same few tanagers.

Female scarlet tanagers are even more difficult to find. The species is about as sexually dimorphic as they come and the drab females can hide even better in the tops of the trees. Now that it is August, soon the males will shed their breeding plumage and trade it in for drab olive green feathers, similar to the females and youngsters. That is why you rarely, if ever, see bright red tanagers during the southward migration.

As difficult as it can be to find tanagers sometimes, it can also be tricky to hear them, or at least to identify their song. Scarlet tanagers have been described as sounding like robins with sore throats. I think it is an apt description so when you cannot see the birds, it is hard to tell whether it is a robin or a scarlet tanager up in the canopy. Throw in the somewhat similar song of the rose-breasted grosbeak and you’ve got another point of confusion when it comes to hearing a scarlet tanager’s song.

What is extremely helpful, however, is to learn the call of the scarlet tanager. It sounds like no other bird and is heard often in the woods of New England. Phonetically, it has been described as “chick bree“ and that sounds about right.

Find the call of the scarlet tanager on an app or online field guide such as www.allaboutbirds.org, and listen to the “chick bree“ call of the tanager. Next time you hear it in the woods, you will recognize it as a tanager and know where to look. Even if you don’t find the bird, you can take heart in knowing that it is up in the canopy somewhere.

Speaking of identifying birds by their songs and calls, I received an email the other day inquiring about how to learn bird calls and songs. I responded by saying there are apps and websites where you can listen to bird sounds, and there is also an app called Merlin that will identify a bird song or call in real time for you based on a recording taken with your smartphone. I could not vouch for the accuracy. In fact I expressed doubt about its accuracy because there are so many factors when it comes to identifying birds by sounds.

Curious, I downloaded the app and give it a shot. Of course, in the summer there aren’t many birds singing, so my sample size was pretty small. I was impressed with the results, although not blown away. It recognized the call of a black-capped chickadee and the song and harsh notes of a Carolina wren, but it missed a few other sounds and told me a pileated woodpecker was nearby when I am quite sure that one of these large woodpeckers did not make any sounds while I was making the recording. That would have been hard to miss. 

I am looking forward to giving it a shot and putting it to a more stern test next spring. I’m curious how it does when several soft-singing warblers are in the area. For those of you who have tried Merlin, or some other bird song identification app, drop me a line and let me know your thoughts about its effectiveness.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of summer and keep your eyes open for young birds in the woods and at the feeders. 

For the Birds: Odd call, brilliant color

A male scarlet tanager perches in a maple tree during spring migration 2017, in Danbury, Conn.

A male scarlet tanager perches in a maple tree during spring migration 2017, in Danbury, Conn.

I heard the uniquely odd call from the nearby woods.

“Chick burr. Chick burr.” The “chick” is higher and louder than the “burr.”

I rushed for my stepladder, set it up on my back deck and climbed onto the roof — camera in hand. It was something I did on a few occasions last year, which is how I learned that call so well. 

It is one call of a scarlet tanager. It has a longer, more melodic song, but this particular call is a quick and unmistakable “chick burr.” It is distinctive; I know of no other bird noise like it.

As I walked along the roof, I was eye level with the tops of the smaller trees and about the middle of the giant oaks that tower over my house. Yes, those same oaks that have literally covered my deck and clogged my gutters with their catkins and pollen this spring. Yes, those same oaks that form a multi-layer ground covering with their leaves in late fall.

But also those oaks that are so good at attracting birds with the plentiful worms and other insects among their leaves and branches. The larger dead branches also serve as homes for cavity-nesting birds. So, I will take the pollen and leaves in exchange for their bird friendliness. It’s a fair trade as far as I’m concerned.

The oaks seem to be a favorite of the scarlet tanagers that pass through in the spring and early summer. It is always a thrill when I hear that strange call because I know one of New England’s most brilliantly plumaged bird is nearby.

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Latest For the Birds column: Up to the roof to get close to a Scarlet Tanager

Photo by Chris Bosak A Scarlet Tanager sings in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Scarlet Tanager sings in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers.

Thankfully the trees are fully leafed out. My neighbors probably would have started to wonder about me. Of course, that process likely started long ago.

I found myself standing on my roof, camera in hand, keeping an eye on a male scarlet tanager that was singing his heart out among the oaks.

I had noticed the brilliant red-and-black bird a few days before. I was writing at my computer at home when I spied him through the window eating berries from those ubiquitous wild raspberry bushes, which are really invasive wineberries from Asia. The bird was impossible to miss with that beaming red plumage that puts cardinals to shame. (No offense to our beloved cardinals.) The tanager was gone by the time I opened the front door for a better look.

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A few more Scarlet Tanager photos

Photo by Chris Bosak A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

You had to see this coming. More Scarlet Tanager photos! When you get a cooperative Scarlet Tanager (this was the first one I’ve ever come across) you have to do more than one post about it … Continue reading

Nothing like a Scarlet Tanager sighting when you least expect it

Photo by Chris Bosak A Scarlet Tanager sings in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Scarlet Tanager sings in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

Well, I didn’t expect this guy to show up in the yard in mid-July. Typically I see the spectacular Scarlet Tanager in mid to late May and not again until the fall migration, if I’m lucky, or even next spring. Perhaps this means that it nested nearby. I sure hope so. Or, it could be an early southward migrant, but not likely. At any rate, I was happy to entertain it over the last few days. Hopefully it sticks around.

This is the male Scarlet Tanager. Females are dull yellow. During the fall migration, the males will lose this spectacular plumage and look somewhat similar to females. This guy is just starting to turn … note the yellow spot on its head.

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