Outdoors

Scarlet tanager is 'stunning' bird to see

Outdoors: Male birds are red with black wings

A scarlet tanager male vies for a female in May at Squaw Creek Park in Linn County. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
A scarlet tanager male vies for a female in May at Squaw Creek Park in Linn County. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
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Perhaps the most stunning of Iowa birds is the scarlet tanager.

Little can compare to the flashes of red seen on a breeding plumage male in the spring or summer, usually on a contrasting green backdrop. For those lucky enough to catch a male in the sunlight, the rich and uniform red coloration changes to vibrant, almost flame-like orange

Whether birder or not, seeing this species will often make a long-lasting impression.

The tanagers in North America are unlike the true tanagers in Central and South America. Our tanagers are larger, less multicolored, not numerous in species and more related to cardinals. Two species are common in Iowa during the breeding season — scarlet and summer.

Although scarcer in terms of sightings, the western tanager is seen many years in Iowa. This last spring was a particularly great one for western tanagers in the Upper Midwest, representing a phenomenon I’ve talked about before — an irruption year.

The male scarlet tanager is a vibrant red with black wings and tail feathers. The eye is dark and bill is gray. The female is a greenish yellow color with dark wings and tail feathers. Males can sometimes show patches of orange when in direct sunlight. Additionally, males change to resemble females during non-breeding months, so you may find a male with random patches of green or yellow in the spring. This is a male coming into its breeding plumage.

Scarlet tanager breeds in the summer throughout deciduous forests of eastern North America, wintering from Panama south along the flanks of the Andes Mountains to Bolivia. While they are often heard singing in the middle to upper canopy, oftentimes in the spring they can be seen foraging on the forest floor.

Completely oblivious to my presence, I once followed a male for several minutes as it hopped down logs, possibly looking for food. This past spring was a noteworthy one in terms of the number of individual tanagers seen. Both scarlet and summer tanager were well-documented coming into feeders during migration. Both species have been recorded in the late fall and early winter at feeders in Iowa.

The song of the scarlet tanager is similar to the American robin, although I’ve been told they “need singing lessons.” The song has a raspier quality than the robin. They also do a quick “chick-bree” or “chick-burr” vocalization, which is highly diagnostic.

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Competing males can often be found early to mid-May in groups, usually vying for a nearby female. Look for these types of opportunities to get photographs. Many times, the males are so busy trying to secure a mate they won’t fly away from a stealthy, respectful human.

l Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. His graduate degree centered on dating continental collisions within the Precambrian Canada Shield. Bird-watching and nature photography are among his favorite hobbies. He lives with his wife and son in Marion. Email brandon.caswell83@gmail.com with birding-related questions, including questions about activities.

PHOTOGRAPHY ADVICE

One time I ventured a good distance north to attend a weekend-long birding event. What I hadn’t realized shortly after my arrival was my camera body was missing its battery. I ended up having a great time, but I was bummed about missing so many great bird shots.

I’ll admit, even though it seems like such an easy thing to remember, it can be easy to forget a battery. Many camera bodies require you take the battery out to charge on some type of plug-in adapter. Often, I will leave my camera body by the charger. That way my first instinct is to put a newly charged battery directly into the body.

A recent investment I made was a battery grip. This is a type of semi-permanent adapter that plugs in the camera body. It does a couple nice things. Its primary job is to offer not one, but two slots for a battery. This effectively doubles the battery life of your camera, which can be important on trips where you are birding from dawn to dusk. The other nice thing is it enlarges the side grip of the camera and creates an additional area to grip on the bottom. Some of the newer camera bodies have built-in dual battery slots.

Bottom line, don’t run out of battery in the middle of a memorable day of birding. Another important thing to keep in mind is flash photography will drain your battery much more quickly. Make sure to always have a spare battery, especially if heavily using a flash.

OTHER BIRDS TO LOOK FOR IN JULY

l Shorebirds start returning mid- to late-July. The first shorebirds to show up are adults. Many shorebird species leave their young very early in the breeding season. Expect the juveniles to show up later in the fall. If muddy to sandy flats exist at places like Hawkeye WMA in Johnson County, then shorebirds could easily persist. A spotting scope really helps when trying to view and identify shorebirds. Locally, Sand Point at Hawkeye WMA is a great place to look for shorebirds if conditions are right.

l While many birds are finished nesting by July, other birds, such as ruby-throated hummingbird, American goldfinch and northern cardinal may just be getting started.

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l Great blue heron and green heron nest in Iowa in the summers. Great blue typically nests in rookeries, with many loosely built nests spread atop tall trees. Green heron nests within more densely protected snags of dead, woody vegetation.

l Blue grosbeak usually nests at Hawkeye WMA and Waterworks Prairie Park, both in Johnson County. They also have been seen in Seminole Valley Park and Pleasant Creek SRA, both in Linn County.

l In terms of other pretty creatures that fly, the butterfly season will start in June and peak toward July. Summer bird-watching also is a great time to be looking for butterflies.

JULY BIRDING CALENDAR

l July 3, 8 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the Kent Park CEC.

l July 17, 8 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the Kent Park CEC.

l July 20 — Annual butterfly count sponsored by the North American Butterfly Association. We’ll visit Kent Park, Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area, Lake Macbride, and other areas. Last year 33 species were seen. To participate, contact Chris Edwards by July 18 at credwards@aol.com.

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