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Jim's Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager

Piranga rubra  



May 11th: Jim Lausier announces on NextDoor that he thinks he has a Scarlet Tanager in his yard. He posts a photo with the announcement. Sam looks at the photo and thinks it is a Summer Tanager.


So Patty and Valerie conduct a little research. Summer Tanagers are bee and wasp specialists. Jim has two beehives. It is a rare event for the Summer Tanager to be in the Northeast; its most northern breeding range is southern New Jersey and the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania. The Scarlet Tanager (general insectivore and spider hunter), however, is a more likely species to visit Peaks Island as it migrates from South America into the Northeast and has been reported in previous Peaks Island eBird lists.


To firm up the research, we decide to go straight to the source – to talk with Jim and to see his bird.


Jim with his Beehives:

Close observation through binocs confirms it is a Summer Tanager (no black shoulders or wings). While waiting for Jim to take care of his many customers we and a few other observers marvel at the good taste exhibited by the tanager in picking Jim’s yard as its hangout. The yard is tranquil and beautiful with flowering fruit trees (the plumcot is the tanager’s tree of choice), two beehives and a birdbath. As stated by Phil (an observer) “…he has trees, plenty of food, and water to drink and bathe. What else would this little bird want?”  A female companion? Jim’s trees would provide a nice nesting habitat. Later in the season, when Summer Tanagers feed on fruit, there will be tasty treats from the plumcot trees.


Apparently, Jim’s yard isn’t the only nearby Summer Tanager stopover this year. Valerie found two 2024 eBird sightings of Summer Tanagers in Peaks general neighborhood: one on Chebeague Island on April 19 (4:28 pm) and another in the Westbrook area on May 7th (92 East Valentine Street at 8 AM).  Are there 3 of these beautiful birds in the area or was this fellow flitting about before deciding Jim’s yard was his ideal spot? We will never know.


Once all the customers head for home with their new plants, we ask Jim to share his thoughts about the interloper in his yard – this Summer Tanager from the southern states.


“Well, I am a little concerned that the Summer Tanager will clean out my beehives, but it is kind of ‘cool’ having him hang around for a while, and he is a pretty red. I originally saw it in a tall tree, thinking it was a cardinal with its red color. But it did not look like a cardinal. The more I looked at it, the more I thought it was a Scarlet Tanager that has visited here in past years. Sam corrected me – that it is a Summer Tanager. I am glad he did.”

First Guess: Northern Cardinal:

Second Guess: Scarlet Tanager:

The Real Thing: Summer Tanager:

Seeing dead bee carcasses on top of one of Jim’s hives, we ask about the bird’s potential impact on his bees. Jim explained that bees live only 30 - 45 days. If they die in the hive they get dragged out by other bees. The dead ones that we see on top of the hive may be those dead bees and not ones that the tanager has killed. Or it may be that the dead bees on top of the hive are those the tanager gets from the ground – bringing them up to the brick on the top of the hive. According to Birds of the World (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology), Summer Tanagers kill their prey by slamming it repeatedly against the perch (or top of beehive). The stinger is removed by wiping the bee on the top of a branch or the beehive. So, we are left with three theories about the dead bees: Nothing is clear!

Checking out Dead Bees:

Hunting for Prey on the Ground:

Flying to Top of Beehive:

Slamming Prey:

Two consecutive days of observation reveals a change in behavior from one day to the next. On May 11th, the tanager flew onto the beehive and occasionally took short ‘sallies’ or ‘hawks’ from the plumcot tree – flying and catching bees in the air and bringing his trophy to the top of the beehive:

Jim has lots of other birds in his yard (House Sparrows and Gray Catbirds in particular). They seem to tolerate each other BUT on this day, the tanager aggressively chased a catbird that got too close to the tanager’s preferred perch in the plumcot tree.

Gray Catbird (Upper Left Corner):


On May 12th, the tanager focused on flitting from the plumcot to another nearby non-flowering tree in Jim’s yard. It was not seriously feeding on the bees. Interactions with the catbird and other birds were more ‘friendly’. And it took a long bath and dried its feathers while perched in the plumcot – displaying puffy downy feathers at the fold of the wings. Is he hopefully preparing for the female’s arrival? Will he sing his robin-like song for her?


With the health of his bee hives in mind, Jim did admit that he was hoping his visitor was NOT planning for his ‘sweetheart’ to show up so they could build a nest and move in for the entire summer. Valerie and Nancy (an observer) ask: ‘‘ How would a female tanager know to come to Peaks Island when her normal breeding range is south of here?”  None of us had an answer. We tried to calm Jim’s fears by suggesting that his visitor was far enough off course that his female friends were unlikely to find him.


Jim then got a bit philosophical, commenting “…if it does stay (and the female arrives) it is telling us something…..” We assumed he meant something regarding climate change.


In the meantime, here is some info on what will take place if she does appear.


In its normal breeding range, the female Summer Tanager usually arrives slightly later than the male. Once she arrives courtship begins. The female searches for the nest site, accompanied by the male. The male defends the nest territory by singing. The female manages the nest building with some assistance from the male.  Three to five eggs are laid. The female is in charge of incubation for 11-12 days.  Both parents feed the nestlings. Age at which young leave the nest is not well documented. (Source: Birds of the World).


Female Summer Tanager

Immature Male Summer Tanager




By: Valerie Kelly and Patty Wainright

Reviewed by: Jim Lausier, Sam Wainright, Marty, Michelle Brown

Photos by: Valerie and Patty unless otherwise labeled


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The objective of The Backshore Bird Blog is to share the wonder and diversity of bird species seen along the Peaks Island shore.

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