Two Tanagers and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

When I stepped out the door about 9:30 this morning, the air already felt warm and sultry. This first full day of summer would be a hot one. From the front porch, I saw an Eastern Bluebird slip into the bluebird box in the shade of some oaks, so it looks like a pair is, indeed, nesting there again. A Great Blue Heron flew slowly over the house, heading south in a hazy blue and white sky – a good omen.

Birds were rather quiet all through the neighborhood, except for Northern Mockingbirds, which seem to love this hot weather. Several sang with great enthusiasm and flourishes in different places. Many Northern Cardinals also sang, and few Brown Thrashers, Chipping Sparrows, an Eastern Phoebe and an occasional Carolina Wren.

Near the crest of a wooded hill, a Scarlet Tanager was singing in the same area where I’ve heard it just about every day for the past two weeks. I usually don’t even try to see it, he stays so well hidden in the foliage of the treetops, but this morning, he sounded close to the road in a tall pine, so I stopped to look – and found not only a brilliant male Scarlet Tanager, but also a rose-red Summer Tanager male, on another branch of the same tree, only a few feet away.

The Summer Tanager appeared to be eating something, though I was too far away to see what, maybe a caterpillar or some kind of insect. The Scarlet Tanager looked agitated by the presence of the other red bird, though I only saw them briefly, not long enough to tell for sure. At the same time, a Great Crested Flycatcher called whreeep from somewhere in the green needles of the same tree several times.

With the two tanagers so close together in the same tree, the contrast between them was particularly clear. Though both are very red, the shades of red, the size and shape of the birds, their postures and behaviors – all are quite different. The Scarlet Tanager looked smaller, neater, more compact, with glassy red plumage and sleek black wings, and a small, round head and bill. Its posture was low to the branch. The Summer Tanager, with its crested head, long heavy bill, slightly blowsy rose-red color and more upright posture looked larger, though I think there’s only a slight difference in their size. The Summer Tanager appeared more relaxed, easygoing and confident; the Scarlet more intense.

The Scarlet sang a couple of times, then watched the Summer Tanager as it ate whatever it had found. Then the Summer Tanager flew, and the Scarlet flew immediately after it, as if in pursuit. I could hear the Scarlet Tanager sing again in just a few seconds, proclaiming his control of this territory. This is an area where both tanager species have often been found in previous summers, but this year I’ve only occasionally heard a Summer Tanager song or call along this wooded road, or seen one.

An Eastern Phoebe hunted from low branches in a shady yard. A Blue Grosbeak sang from a treetop on the edge of a meadow-like yard with lots of shrubs and small trees. A Barn Swallow swooped around another open yard and flew up under the porch roof where I think the Swallows are nesting – and I could hear the cries of baby birds. A little further on, an Eastern Bluebird flew out of the blue newspaper box by the roadside where a pair is nesting – and the cries of baby birds came from inside there, too. I hope they make it. With free-roaming cats and other hazards all around, their nest seems in a particularly vulnerable situation.

In the past couple of days, the roadside along the old field has been mowed, so where there had been tall grasses, purple thistles, Queen Anne’s Lace, false dandelions and other wildflowers and weeds, now there’s a wide swathe of drying mowed grass, for several yards between the road and the field. But an Indigo Bunting still sang, a tiny, intensely-blue dot in the top of a shaggy tree – maybe a wild cherry tree – in the field, and a White-eyed Vireo sang from somewhere in the thickets. Two or three Mockingbirds sang, Mourning Doves sat on the wires, and a Black Vulture sat on top of one of the utility poles.

When I got back home, a silvery-gray little bird with a long upturned tail was foraging in mulch around the side of the driveway, near some blooming lantana – a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. I haven’t seen or heard them very often lately, so it was nice to see this one. It hopped and pecked around for a couple of minutes as I watched – then flew to a nearby tree. Later in the day, at least two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called their whispery spee-spee calls from trees all around the back yard.

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