“There’s one over your head right now,” Barb whispered to me as we sat watching the birds at ‘The Log” at Capulin Springs.
Then it flew over me and landed in a deciduous tree. Miraculously, his yellow and red plumage blended in with the dappled light between the branches. It only perched there a short time, and then flew into the forest.
A while later, it flew into a tree near the log, and then down into the trough to drink and bathe.
The striking plumage of the male Western Tanager puts it near the top of the list of my favorite summer birds in New Mexico. What you notice first is its red head, followed by a yellow neck, breast – and when in flight, its yellow rump. The upper back is black, as are the wings – highlighted by both a yellow and a white wing bar. It is the dark wings with the wing bars that helps the bright color of the body blend into the deciduous trees where it spends much of its time, except for nesting.
The female’s coloring is more subtle. Its yellow head, breast and rump are not as bright as the male. Its wings are gray with yellow and white wing bars rather than black. They are more elusive. The only times I have seen one is when they have come into a water source to drink.
The Western Tanager was one of the species that was unknown until it was recorded by the Lewis and Clark expedition as they arrived in the western part of the U.S.
Western Tanagers begin arriving in Central New Mexico occasionally as early as late April and are seen regularly by mid-May as they migrate along the Rio Grande bosque as they travel north – some traveling all the way to Canada. Those that breed in New Mexico, head up into the mountains. In the Sandia Mountains they can be found from the Ojito de San Antonio Open Space up to about 10,000 ft.
During the breeding season, the male will establish its territory when it first arrives at the location where it will spend the summer. It will often pick a spot with a high perch at border of its territory where its song will travel further. I was lucky to see one in such a spot recently as I descended the Crest Highway.
Its song has the same cadence as a Robin, but the notes are harsher.
Since pairs arrive on their breeding grounds together, it is surmised that the pairing either occurs on their wintering grounds in southern Mexico and Central America, or as they migrate north. The male is attentive and often accompanies its mate during nest-building and egg-laying. Their nest is a loosely woven bowl, almost always on a horizontal branch in a conifer.
The male also brings food to the female while she is incubating and seems to know when the eggs are about ready to hatch. When she begins to leave the nest briefly, he will come over and have a look at the eggs.
Both parents are involved feeding the chicks.
The pair is very sensitive to intruders during incubation and brooding – including people. If you happen to encounter a Western Tanager nest, it is important to back away immediately.
While Western Tanagers eat a variety of insects, they are known as being bee and wasp specialists.
They also eat beetles, cicadas, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and caterpillars, as well as small berries, if available. Food is gathered high in the canopy and sometimes caught in mid-air.
The red pigment in its face is not produced by the bird itself, but like a number of other species, is acquired from the insects and berries it eats, which explains why some males have more read on their heads than others.
When the breeding season ends by mid-July, the male stops singing and you need to listen for its pit-ir-ik call.
Western Tanagers will remain in central New Mexico through September, which gives those of us who love this species, plenty of opportunity to observe them. Take the opportunity to savor this striking summer visitor.