Scarlet Tanager in the Rain

Early this evening, very late in a day of heavy rain and storms, a brilliant Scarlet Tanager appeared among the wet green leaves of a small tree on the edge of our back yard – its clear, bright red gleamed in the mist and light rain and green leaves, with black wings glistening. It moved along the branches, staying in view, searching for insects and other prey. Another bird of a quieter color came very near it briefly, but stayed in the shadows. I think it was a female Scarlet Tanager, though it didn’t stay long, and I didn’t see it well enough to be sure. A few minutes later, after the male had moved out of view, the electric chick-brrr calls of Scarlet Tanagers drifted through the trees, as a gentle rain continued to fall. 

A male Scarlet Tanager is a medium-size, roundish songbird with a thick bill. A pure, clear red with jet-black wings and a black tail, it’s a stunning bird to see, exotic in appearance, and it’s hard to believe it can stay as well hidden as they usually do, deep among the foliage of hardwood trees. It’s unusual to watch one that stays out of the leaves in view as this one did, for any length of time. The female’s color is a mix of olive and yellow, with darker wings and tail, striking in her own way, but in colors that blend more easily into the background shades of a forest. 

We’ve had the very good luck this spring to have a pair of Scarlet Tanagers singing and calling in the trees around our back yard and the nearby woods. Almost every day the male’s insistent song can be heard nearby, a series of hoarse, robin-like phrases. The quiet, expressive chick-brrr calls of the pair lace through the trees. I especially love to hear them late in the day, even in early twilight, because the calls reveal that these beautiful birds are here. They stay so hidden in the foliage that without the calls and songs, we might not even know they were around.

Scarlet Tanagers prefer to nest in large areas of deciduous forest, especially in oaks. They are particularly sensitive to the loss of forested habitat and to forest fragmentation. In smaller patches of woods where they do nest, they often are less successful, often parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds and suffering other risks because of not having the protection of a deeper forest interior. 

So while it’s lucky for us to have such exotic, colorful songbirds nesting near our home, it may not be so lucky for the Scarlet Tanagers themselves, because the woods that surround our home are very patchy and fragmented. We do have a lot of large and beautiful oaks, and I can hope that these will give the tanagers enough protection and good success in this nesting season. 

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