Summertime Tanagers

Male Western Tanager (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Summertime in SaddleBrooke is a secret we don’t share with snowbirds.  Sure, we joke with them about the dry heat, tell them our summer monsoon should be renamed the summer ‘nonsoon’ and encourage them to leave before our first hundred-degree day.  Once they’ve cleared out (certainly by Memorial Day), we kick back, relax and enjoy the traffic-free roads, half-empty restaurants and crowd-free venues.  Those snowbirds that flee our comfortable single-digit humidity for the breath-stealing humidity beyond the desert also miss out on some of the best birding of the year.  Summer is when we watch the miracle of nest-building, courtship displays and babies.  Who wants to drive a thousand miles and miss watching the daily drama of quail trying to get a dozen hatchlings from windup toy to puberty?  Deserting the desert in the summer also means missing most of our hummingbirds and many of our most colorful migrants.  Our tanagers are a good example.

Female Western Tanager contemplates a bee (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Part of the Cardinalidae family, all five U.S. tanagers belong to the same genus, Piranga (Not Latin or Greek, but Amazonian Tupi language for ‘an unknown small bird’).  All five of these are found in Arizona although the Scarlet Tanager, common to the eastern U.S., is rare here.  The Flame-colored Tanager (from Mexico) is also rare here, but even rarer in Texas, the only other state where it’s seen. One of the other three species, the Hepatic Tanager, is mostly found in just two other U.S. states, New Mexico and Texas, while the remaining two species, the Summer Tanager and the Western Tanager are far more widespread.  If you have any doubts about these birds being colorful, consider the names, scarlet, flame-colored and hepatic (liver-red).  The Western and Summer are no less eye-catching. The male Summer is a bright rosy red overall and the male Western a red-headed black and yellow bird with a distinctive yellow wing bar. 

Young male Western Tanager on our waterfall (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The Hepatic Tanager is the most widely distributed Piranga tanager, ranging from the Southwest U.S. all the way to northern Argentina.  And although its English name refers to a liver-red coloration, its species name flava (Latin for golden-yellow) comes from its original description, based on a female bird in Paraguay.  In Arizona, Hepatic Tanager is a common summer resident of higher elevations with pine, oak, juniper and other conifers.

Female Western Tanager eating palm fruit (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The Western Tanager, the quintessential bird of western forests, is found west of mid-Kansas, north into Canada and south into Mexico, where it winters. Despite its brilliant colors and strong song, its predilection for shady foliage makes it elusive and sometimes difficult to spot.  Last summer our neighbor’s palm tree sprouted tiny fruits on long stems that developed into bird magnets. Mockingbirds, grosbeaks, waxwings and Western Tanagers swung from the stems while gobbling this fruit.  The tanagers were of particular interest to us, and they were in our yard and next door in large numbers (as many as 30 at a time) for weeks during their southbound migration.  The Western Tanager breeds farther north (60 degrees) than any other tanager, spending as little as two weeks in its northern most habitat.

Male Summer Tanager in Peppersauce Canyon (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Summer Tanagers are found mostly in the southern states from California to Florida, and the male may be our most striking summer migrant.  A berry and fruit eater, the Summer Tanager is also well known for eating bees and wasps. It’s a migrant commonly found in riparian woodlands. Two of the most easily found summer populations near SaddleBrooke are Peppersauce Campground near Oracle and The Shores recreational area north of Mammoth on the Gila River.  Just don’t tell our snowbirds.

This article originally appeared in the July, 2021 issue of Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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