Birding Notes

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

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Hoarse Song of a Scarlet Tanager – It Almost Hurts to Listen

There are no more persistent singers around our woods recently than Scarlet Tanagers. One sings in the woods across the street from our house almost all day every day. He’s one of the first to sing early each morning, soon after first light, and he continues to sing throughout the day – mid morning, late morning, early afternoon, mid-afternoon. I think surely he must take some breaks, but it seems that whenever I step outside, he’s singing.

In the evenings, he’s one of the last to sing, well after the sun has gone down. He sings so constantly that it’s tempting to think he sounds hoarse from singing so much – but the hoarse, almost harsh quality is the natural voice of the Scarlet Tanager. His song of five, six or seven rough phrases is often described as sounding like a Robin with a sore throat. Even knowing that, after hearing him sing for a long time, it almost hurts to listen.

He follows a regular path along the edge of the woods and then deeper into the woods, toward a creek, and usually stays down in the foliage out of sight, but twice in the past week I’ve caught vivid glimpses. Once, he was perched in the top of a large Red Oak at the corner of our street – the same spot where I saw him earlier in the spring – and the other time he was flying from one tree to another. Both times, he looked like a tiny, clear red drop of glass against the blue sky. His black wings were visible in contrast, but didn’t show up as strikingly as the red.

I have not seen a female, only the male. Occasionally I hear the chik-burr calls, especially at twilight. This is the first year I’ve ever seen and heard Scarlet Tanagers more often around the edges of our woods than Summer Tanagers – whose calls I frequently hear, but not their song, and I’ve rarely seen one. In previous years, there’s almost always been a Summer Tanager that sings around the yard, and a pair often foraging in the trees – but not this spring. One of our neighbors, however, says he sees them often and thinks they may have nested somewhere near. That’s good to know!


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