Birds on Nantucket

Black-winged Redbird – Bird of Mystery?

Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

If you are interested in birds and have a bird book, this is a bird that whets your appetite for sight. The pictures are so stunning you can’t wait to actually experience this bird for yourself. Alas it’s not an easy feat. Seeing such intense color spring from your bird book it’s hard to imagine these birds can hide, and yet they do so successfully.

Strangely, non-birders seem to have better luck with them than the rest of us. I hear all to often from wide-eyed friends, “I had a Scarlet Tanager fly across the “Sconset Road in front of the car!” Or perhaps it would be in their backyard or in the Japonica Bush. Sometimes a heavy rain washes insects from the trees and people observe flocks of tanagers feeding on the lawn. Another story tells about them following a plow, catching the bugs that are stirred up. What an amazing sight this would be, but I’ve never seen it. Yes, this is a bird that almost everyone knows by name and it’s an interesting name at that.

Both the word “tanager” and the Genus name for this bird, Piranga, are taken from South American Indian names for these birds. This brings us a subtle message since so many of our bird names originate from Greek or Latin. Like hummingbirds, tanagers are a “New World” family. There are over 200 species and almost all of them exist exclusively in the tropics.

Many species are “drop-dead gorgeous” birds, their colors not just painted on, but radiating out from their bodies. People naming them grasp for extraordinary terms, like “flame-colored,” “glistening green,” “crimson-backed,” or “diademed.” Indeed if you are fortunate enough to see one you immediately get the feeling it must have escaped from an exotic collection because there’s no way it should exist here in New England.

To some extent this is a very appropriate feeling. Our tanagers, and we might see three species here on Nantucket, are only in the U.S. in the summer months. During the winter, Central America is not far enough south for them. No, they must head well into South America to mix with other species of their ilk. They are known as “trans-Gulf” migrants, flying across the Gulf of Mexico rather than taking the land route around.

One lovely May morning a few years ago Nantucket’s Sunday morning birders were thrilled to have a male Scarlet Tanager perform for them in a just-budding tree at the Lily Pond. In 50 years of birding this was the best look I’ve ever gotten and here some of the birders experienced it on their first trip out!

Scarlet Tanagers are smaller than a robin, with jet-black wings and a thick whitish bill. Roger Tory Peterson describes the males as “Flaming scarlet.” Female tanagers are hugely different, green above fading to yellow below. And here’s the rub for you who are now anticipating going out and seeing this bird. In autumn, all tanagers don these yellow and green colors. For a short time the males are splotched with both red and green, thoroughly confusing a new birder. The species name for this “black-winged redbird” is olivacea, olive-colored, and may indicate that the first specimens were in fall plumage. Also, Piranga rubra, the “red tanager,” had already been used for the Summer Tanager.

For nesting, Scarlet Tanagers choose oak forests. High in these leafy realms they spend their summers, slowly and methodically moving from leaf to leaf, removing every insect they find. Their call note, a striking “chip-burrr,” or their rapid song, like a robin with a sore throat, tantalizes birders below. You know they are up there but they are hard to see.

On Nantucket they migrate rapidly through in May, perhaps into early June. Some years we hear them singing in the Hidden Forest and hope they will nest but it’s never been proved. In the mainland’s hardwood forests they build their simple nests, 20 feet up, and typically well out on a horizontal branch away from the trunk. After the four eggs hatch, the Beau Brummel males quickly lose interest and Mama Tanager finishes raising the next generation.

In August we often observe the red and green males migrating south across our island. In September through mid-October, Scarlet Tanagers are common here but alas, they are all green and yellow and tricky to see. Listen for the “Chip-burrr” call note and then track them down. If you see a tanager in November, it is more likely a bewildered Western Tanager, a very striking Rocky Mountain bird that sometimes migrates east instead of south. They have white wingbars and are easily confused with the young Baltimore Orioles that also hang around into early winter. Birding on Nantucket is never dull.

Ken Blackshaw is the author of more than ten books focusing mainly on natural history subjects. He writes the weekly bird column for the Nantucket Independent, and has just published Volume Three of his “A Year of Birding Nantucket” series. George C. West creates illustrations for these articles. Originally published in the Nantucket Independent, August 18, 2006.

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