It's mid-April, and the ruby-throated hummingbirds are here. The eastern kingbirds are here. The black and white warblers are here. Summer tanager, where art thou?
A long-distance migratory bird, summer tanagers (Piranga rubra) overwinter in central and South America. Many of them may fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to their breeding grounds in the southeastern United States. Once they do arrive, we are graced with their presence until early to mid-autumn.
The arrival of summers tanagers decked out in their bright colors is always a much anticipated event, and I typically hear them sometime in April. Yes, I hear them. These birds tend to stay in the mid- to upper canopy in a range of forest types, which can make them a bit difficult to see. Fortunately, their call is somewhat distinct, and these are extremely vocal birds! Tracking the call to the bird is usually my sequence of events.
In north-central Arkansas, I find the highest concentration of summer tanagers in a relatively dry pine-oak forest. This habitat provides an abundance of bees and wasps for these insect-eaters. With camera in hand, I look for mature pines with the lowest hanging branches. With a little (actually, a lot) patience, the birds will eventually make their way down the tree as they glean insects from the branches, and get within the desired photographic distance. On a positve note, if things don't work out the way I'd like on one day, there will be many more opportunities. These lovely birds stay for several months as they nest and raise their young.
The brilliant red of the male summer tanagers, yellow of the females, and red and yellow pattern of the fledged juveniles make these birds a delight to observe and photograph, even during the hottest and most humid day of summer.