Birding Notes

Reflections on birds and other wildlife on the edge of a southern woodland

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Twilight Tanagers

For the past month or so, one time of day when I can be sure of hearing both Summer and Scarlet Tanagers is early twilight. Not long after sunset, when light is just beginning to fade, their calls travel through the darkening woods, and sometimes through the trees around us. I can trace where they go by the calls – the soft, percussive pik-a-tuk, pik-a-tuk of the Summer Tanager, the emphatic CHIK-brrrrr, CHIK-brrrrr of the Scarlet. The Scarlet’s call is almost electric. I feel it as much as hear it.

The Summer Tanagers seem casual in their pattern of movement, as if they’re just out for an evening stroll through the woods, while the Scarlet Tanagers seem to follow a more predictable path each evening, up and down the creek, and then back toward the east, and up the hill toward our house, sometimes coming quite close. I should add that I don’t listen for them every evening and can’t say anything definitive about their movements – these are just my casual impressions.

Both Scarlet and Summer Tanagers arrived in mid April and have been singing in the woods around our house off and on all day since then, especially in the early mornings, but we seldom see them. This is unusual for the Summer Tanagers. In previous years, a pair has been a regular presence around the house – the all-red male and deep-yellow female, both with their thick bills, slightly crested heads, and somewhat furtive postures. A Summer Tanager’s song was one of the first I heard every morning, usually coming from a perch in the top of one of the trees just outside my bedroom window.

Scarlet Tanagers, on the other hand, have always been more secretive, more often heard than seen, and whenever I catch a glimpse of the male’s flamboyant scarlet and black, or the female’s olive-yellow with ash-brown wings, it seems like something special. This year, however, I’m just about as excited whenever I see a Summer Tanager, since they’ve been so much less common.


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