Scarlet Tanagers at Ashbridge’s Bay Park In Toronto
After hearing about the scores of different bird species being seen at Ashbridge’s Bay Park in Toronto, Ontario one spring, Bob and I made it our mission to be up and out early one Sunday in mid-May in order to check out the lakeside park where hundreds of birds rest after crossing Lake Ontario. It was not until lunchtime, however, that we unexpectedly came upon two Scarlet Tanagers adjacent to the park’s restaurant parking lot.
We only had the one day available for birdwatching owing to family and business commitments, and I was not about to let the best birdwatching in years slide by without a valiant effort at seeing some of the wondrous creatures enjoyed by so many others. Two species, in particular, were on our list of hopeful sightings, Scarlet Tanagers and Indigo Buntings. The morning had slipped by without a sight of either species, and then, there, when we went for lunch, were two male Scarlet Tanagers foraging in the grass beneath a huge deciduous tree.
Scarlet Tanager males in breeding plumage are a stunning crimson red with jet black wings and tail. For that reason, during the spring and summer, the adult males cannot be mistaken for any other bird species. Despite their brilliance, these birds are considered very difficult to see since they usually remain high up in the forest canopy. They are more often heard than seen, and it is their hoarse robin-like warble that often gives away their presence.
Upon spotting the second Scarlet Tanager that apparently came to join the first one, Bob and I noticed a variation in the colour of the plumage. It appeared to be a first year male with colouring that is not fully developed. Immatures are a duller red with the wings and tail appearing brownish instead of solid black. At first, I questioned as to whether or not this was a Summer Tanager, but that species has no indication of black on the wings.
Scarlet Tanagers congregate in small flocks during migration and can be seen together on the breeding grounds between late April to mid- May. That is when the males sing earnestly and feed high in the treetops. They are usually only found foraging on the ground on a cold, wet day, and indeed, the conditions had suddenly changed from a clear, sunny sky to leaden grey clouds and intermittent showers. The thunderstorm hanging on the western horizon was ushered in our direction by chilly breezes, hence our decision to go for lunch.
I was utterly shocked to see the Scarlet Tanagers hanging off the side of a tree trunk like some nuthatch or woodpecker as they scoured the crevices for insects. I had never expected them to exhibit such behaviour. It was one thing to see them rambling through the grass as they might on the forest floor when searching for food,
but quite another to see these songbirds creeping around the girth of the tree. It is usually flying insects such as bees or hornets, moths or butterflies, beetles, grasshoppers and dragonflies that make up the diet of the Tanagers, but perhaps they were finding spiders hidden in the bark’s nooks and crannies. The stout horn-coloured bill of a Tanager serves it well when snatching up insects of any sort.
While Bob and I were frantically photographing the Scarlet Tanagers before they might be frightened by the joyous shouts of nearby children, I caught a glimpse of a yellowish-green bird in the tree’s outstretched branches. I was thrilled that I was able to pick out a female Scarlet Tanager thanks to the sparse foliage.
In the blink of an eye, the female moved to the ground. Even though her delicate colouring is yellowish green on the upper parts, it did not suffice to camouflage her there on the thin grass. Her long slender wings are greyish-brown, as is the tail, and the dull pale yellow underparts grow gradually brighter on the throat, sides and under tail coverts.
On rare occasions, a female Scarlet Tanager will exhibit weak wing bars, but for the most part, they resemble a non-breeding male Tanager in winter. She remained on the scene for a mere couple of minutes, so we turned our attentions back to the showy males.
Originally, these strikingly beautiful birds were included in the tanager family of birds, but more recently, they were reclassified as members of the cardinal family. Certainly, the similarity of plumage and vocalizations justifies the change even if they don’t possess the same type of thick conical bill. Scarlet Tanagers are found during breeding season in deciduous and mixed forests of eastern North America where they favour combined pine and oak woodlands. By mid-summer, some of this species begin moving south again, and the last of them will have departed for warmer climes by early October.
The vibrantly colored male Scarlet Tanager gleams in the sunlight but is adept at concealment when navigating through thick foliage especially if the bird is motionless or moves slowly from branch to branch. The best opportunity to see a Tanager is if it happens to perch on a dead tree limb or moves onto the ground.
In hindsight, Bob and I are thankful for the impending storm that day as it resulted in the closeup view of the Tanagers. They were not the only ones intent upon finding something to eat. Bob and I made a beeline for the restaurant while holidaymakers in the park hastened to complete their picnics and wrap up activities. We had had a grand morning of birdwatching.
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