Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

During their first year, male summer tanagers can have this mottled appearance with head and breast splashed with red, yellow and olive-colored feathers. © Daniel Jackson

During their first year, male summer tanagers can have this mottled appearance with head and breast splashed with red, yellow and olive-colored feathers.
© Daniel Jackson

August 2009

Bright, sporty and gone in a flash

Off course and north of its normal range, it's a rare treat to see the red summer tanager on a warm day.

Judy Nugent

A select few Wisconsin residents had a rare encounter this past spring. Paul Hayes of rural Vernon County was enjoying his hilltop view one morning when he spotted a mysterious bird outside his feeder. Was that red – and yellow – together?

He quickly got his binoculars, but a closer look did not solve the mystery. This bird, slightly smaller than a cardinal, had a red head, streaks of red down its yellow breast, and yellow wings. Hayes had never seen anything quite like it. So before it flew away, Hayes grabbed his camera, snapped a quick picture, and immediately e-mailed it to avid birder Dan Jackson of La Crosse.

Jackson, president of the Coulee Region Audubon Society, downloaded Hayes' snapshot. The grainy, dimly lit photo was not conducive to a firm identification, but could it be a summer tanager, rarely seen in Wisconsin? To be positive, Jackson packed a few belongings and made the trek to the Hayes farm to listen for the bird's song to be positive.

Sure enough, within a few minutes of his arrival, Jackson heard the unique chicky-tucky-TUCK of the summer tanager, (Piranga rubra), only listed roughly 20 times in Wisconsin over the past century of record keeping. As the spring progressed, two other sightings were verified including one as far north as Port Wing on Lake Superior!

Many of you are probably familiar with the more common scarlet tanager. The main difference between the two species is that the adult male summer tanager is usually completely red, while the scarlet tanager has a black tail and black wings on an otherwise red body. The unusual mottled red and yellow bird on the Hayes farm did not have any of the telltale black, nor was he solid red. He was a young male who apparently overshot normal migration routes or got blown a bit off course.

A male summer tanager in beautiful red plumage. © G. Hofmann and F. Scheffler
A male summer tanager in beautiful red plumage.
© G. Hofmann and F. Scheffler

Summer tanagers are unique in that they eat bees and wasps. They are skilled enough to catch these airborne buzzers in flight and then kill them by beating them against a branch. Then the birds carefully rub the bees and wasps against the branch until the stinger falls out. Often these tanagers will stake out a wasp nest or hive, kill the adults, and then rip open the nest to eat the larvae. They are also known to eat grasshoppers, spiders, dragonflies and other insects.

These tanagers are upper canopy birds that prefer the treetops of open woodlands, so getting a glimpse of them is often difficult. Bird watchers are more likely to see these birds in their typical range. They spend the winter in northern South America and Central America. Their summer range is from southern California, through Texas, and across the south all the way to the East Coast. They normally only come as far north as central Illinois.

Summer tanagers are vagrants known to over-shoot their breeding territories in the spring on a fairly regular basis, Jackson says. One or two are often found in Minnesota and/or Wisconsin each year. Outside of the spring season, they are extremely uncommon – only four have been recorded in Wisconsin during the summer season (June 1 – July 31), 15 in the fall (August 1 – November 30), and three in the winter (December – February). Even in the spring, there have only been three sightings before April 28. When they are seen this far north, they are usually found in early May. This year was a big year for them. Four or five were found in Wisconsin and a couple were reported in Minnesota as well, Jackson adds. In fall and winter, the summer tanager inhabits and prefers humid evergreen forests and tropical forests – a far cry from the oak woods of Wisconsin.

Hayes says, "It was a thrill to see such a rare bird outside our window. And as I did more research, I was proud to learn that backyard bird watchers are carrying on a phenology tradition that included Aldo Leopold, who kept records of the arrival of several species of birds to his shack in Sauk County. The more people who report these kinds of sightings, the more scientists can learn," Hayes says.

So what do you do if you think you've seen a rare bird in your back yard? Fortunately there are lots of places and lots of people in the state interested in tracking such observations. Start at Wisconsin eBird to report your observation. Then you could take part as a citizen scientist and report your observations to monitoring projects like Wisconsin Nature Mapping. The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology also operates a statewide bird-alert, (262) 784-4032, that you can call to hear current sightings of unusual birds or report your observations. At eBird you can report sightings to an even bigger group of dedicated birders, learn more about specific birds, see pictures and hear their calls.

It's fun to share the news when an unusually colorful customer with a beak full of bee stops for a visit at a branch near you.

Outdoor writer, television and radio host Judy Nugent writes about hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation in the upper Midwest, especially Wisconsin.