A bird on fire, a male scarlet tanager perched just above my eye level. He was in a tree at the edge of the Upper Fields Trail at Fox Chapel’s Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve. Normally high in the forest canopy gleaning insects in spring and summer, this avian migrant, roughly robin size, had decided that the pickings were just as good 10 feet up, treating me to a wonderful view without binoculars or a craned neck. The last time I had spotted a member of this species, he was 100 feet up, and all I could really see were bounding flashes of red.
Male Scarlet Tanagers are indeed a brilliant red from beak to vent with dashing black wings and tail, at least when they are in breeding finery. After they molt these attractive feathers at summer’s end, they blend in with the females, turning a yellowy-green with grayish-black wings. When I’ve mist-netted these birds at Powdermill Avian Research Center near Rector, Westmoreland County, I’ve noticed that the beaks are almost horn-like, with a glossy sheen. They’re great for devouring insects, but useful, too, for the occasional fruit, berry or bud—also part of the tanager’s diet.
Scarlet Tanagers fly north each spring from wintering grounds in the Andean foothills of northwestern South America. Winging their way over the isthmus of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and into the Yucatan, they hop across the Gulf of Mexico and follow the spine of the Appalachians to western Pennsylvania, then continue north and westward.
It’s in our woods across the Commonwealth that a few thousand pairs will find unbroken stretches of woodland to breed and nest. Monogamous in breeding season, but swapping partners from year to year, tanagers build nests of loosely woven twigs, grasses, and other plant material, shaped by the body of the female and set 50 feet or more up in an established deciduous tree. It’s there that the female will brood a single clutch of three to five greenish- blue speckled eggs for a fortnight before the young hatch.
The babies receive a high-protein insect diet, then the new fliers will hang around their parents and fatten up for another two weeks before beginning to disperse prior to migration. By the time the species as a collective is wending its way south, tanagers may be found in backyards and other suburban locations, so keep a lookout for this migrant.
Join a bird walk this summer with the Three Rivers Birding Club or the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. A great early morning Saturday drive from Pittsburgh will find you an hour east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike visiting the scientists of the Powdermill Avian Research Center. And for amazing birds closer to home, visit the National Aviary on the North Side.