North America supports three (Scarlet, Summer, and Western Tanagers) of the 235 species of tanagers found worldwide. New molecular evidence suggests that these three tanager species of the Genus Piranga are related to the cardinal family (2).
Even though the Backshore teams with our winter sea ducks, loons, cormorants, gulls, guillemots and more,
- we go inland, not once but twice to see an unusual bird – a male Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana). Its vibrant yellow plumage and a pumpkin-hued face (changing to red during breeding season), and its rarity are a magnet for birdwatchers. This tanager does not belong in Maine, especially in winter when it is normally found along the western mountains of Mexico, and as far south as Costa Rica. Rare Bird Alert announces his arrival at Highland Lake in January. He spends his days there in his preferred habitat – conifers, that are conveniently close to bird feeders. Most importantly, though, a dish full of mealy worms arrives several times a day. So he stays, and delights serious birdwatchers.
And Michael, as we all know, is one of those serious birdwatchers. He takes us on two field trips to this site. On our first trip to the lake we find an empty dish and no bird. We whistle and search on this cold and rainy day. Where is he? Perhaps he left, headed south. A door opens and a hand emerges holding a bowl with wiggling worms – the tanager’s mealy worms. The bird immediately emerges from the conifers. He had been somewhere deep in those conifers the entire time we searched. Although the worms are provided, it takes the tanager awhile to plunge for the kill. Following hunting protocol, this tanager generally stays on a branch, moving only its head back and forth in search of flying insects.
On our second trip we find him tucked away in the conifers. We see him – his bright yellow feathers giving him away this time. The bowl is full of mealy worms, but he is not interested. A Black-capped Chickadee and a
Dark-eyed Junco (regional population = Slate-colored Junco)
appear in his conifers and at the feeding station. Now he is interested. The tanager without hesitation attacks and steals a worm directly from the chickadees beak. It is his territory, after all.
So how do these small birds get lost – thrown off their migration highways, or just displaced from their summer or winter homes? Michelle (Wildlife Biologist) explains:
“Individual birds that stray outside of their migration routes are called vagrants. Three factors may contribute to their displacement: Storms take them out of their migration pattern; inexperienced young birds may overshoot or undershoot their usual migration destination; or individual genetic abnormalities may alter their orientation (genetic compass). Although the last two reasons may seem to be a negative in the bird world, both factors can actually be beneficial to populations. For example, if habitat along a migration route is destroyed or disturbed in a way that does not offer the usual food or shelter required by birds during their arduous trek from one hemisphere to the next, then that population within a species may suffer. However, if there are individuals within a population that successfully go on a different trip than their brethren, especially if they raise young and teach them the new migration route, then that population may be able to survive. These vagrants (individuals) give their population another option for migration that can be beneficial to that species survival. Youthful inexperience and genetic variation is sometimes a good thing!” (MB)
We do not know which of the above factors brought this Western Tanager to Maine. The breeding range of this tanager ranges from Alaska to California and east to Colorado and Saskatchewan. In the winter it prefers coniferous forests in high elevations in western Mexico (2). Many sightings of this tanager have occurred ranging from the Midwest and along the east coast from New Jersey to Maine (3, 4). He is far from home; he got lost. Karen, the tanager’s keeper, sees it quite simply: “Males usually do not ask for directions – so they get lost.” And, this tanager has a story to tell about getting lost.
So what will happen to this male Western Tanager? Will he instinctively migrate (genetic compass) north or northwest? Will he stay and search for a mate?
His cousin the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) arrives in Maine this spring from northwest South America. Vocalizations of these two tanager species are similar but their plumage differ. The male Scarlet Tanager’s body plumage is a brilliant red, with black wings and tail. The female is yellowish-grey on her back with a sharper yellow underneath. Her wings are grey with no wing bars.
The male Western Tanager is yellow overall, with a red head, black wings and tail. His wings have two yellow wing bars:
The female is similar to the female Scarlet Tanager except that she has two distinctive wing bars.
Will this male Western Tanager stay in Maine? If so, will he find a female of his species? Will he select a female Scarlet Tanager without wing bars? Will this female accept this Western Tanager with only a red head and yellow body as compared to the striking red plumage of her species? Limited hybridization has been recorded between these two tanager species.
“With meals of grape jelly, grapes, and mealy worms, I can’t imagine this bird will be leaving soon. (ML)” In the autumn the Western Tanager’s favorite fruit source is the cherry – Maine has many wild cherry trees. Will he stay?
Extra information: If you would like to help migrating birds this spring, plant a garden that can provide them food after or during, their long journeys. The Audubon Society offers advice on selecting bird friendly plants: Native Plants Database
2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., and Christie, D.A. eds. (2011) Handbook of Birds of the World. Vol. 16. Tanagers to New World Blackbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
3. Peterson, R.T. (1947) A Field Guide to the Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA.
4. Sibley, D.A. (2000) National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. NY
We thank Michael LaCombe for taking us to Highland Lake.
Contributors: Michelle Brown (MB), Michael LaCombe (ML), and Karen from Highland Lake
Reviewed by: Michelle Brown, Michael LaCombe, Sam Wainright, and Marty
By Patty Wainright
If you want to visit this bird, please contact Michael LaCombe: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for your interest in the Backshore Bird Blog. If you have any additional bird sightings that you want to share or if you have any questions regarding Peak's bird life, please send them to Michelle: email@example.com.