Tanagers in the Treetops

By now, regular readers of my blog here know that I spend a lot of time hiking in the Hoover Forest Preserve along the south bank of the Fox River in Yorkville, Illinois.  The preserve offers a wide variety of beautiful trees, colorful wildflowers, interesting animals, and a plethora of amazing birds.  This summer, one exceptionally colorful and not so often seen bird species has made a regular appearance on my hikes: the Scarlet Tanager. 

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A male Scarlet Tanager in a trailside tree. Hoover Forest Preserve, Yorkville, IL. Photograph by Tom Schrader

An Exciting Sighting

The Scarlet Tanager was a bird that I’d often read about and seen pictures of but had never seen in person until a few years ago when a few friends and I were hiking in a fairly remote wooded area of the Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area near Plano, Illinois.  It was late spring and one of my friends noticed a flash of crimson in the canopy of the oak savannah we were walking through.  We stopped and studied the branches through the thick leaves and I finally got my first glimpse of a beautiful male Scarlet Tanager, a bird that I had dreamed of seeing since I was a little boy who first saw an illustration of one in a book of local birds that my grandma had.  The brilliant scarlet feathers on the body of the bird contrasted with the black wings and tail feathers making it look like something that would be more likely to be encountered in some tropical jungle than in the local forests of northern Illinois!  Female Scarlet Tanagers have plumage that look nothing like the males.  Their olive plumage makes it sometimes difficult to distinguish them from other similarly colored birds that live in our forests. 

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A female Scarlet Tanager with a morsel on a low branch in the Hoover Forest Preserve. Photograph by Tom Schrader

A Good Year

Since that first sighting, I’ve had occasional brief sightings of Scarlet Tanagers at irregular intervals during the warmer months on my hikes in the Fox River-side woods of Kendall County until this year.  2022 seems to have produced a bumper crop of Scarlet Tanagers, at least in the Hoover Forest Preserve where I most often hike.  While I haven’t spotted these amazingly beautiful birds on every hike I’ve taken in the preserve this summer, I almost always at least hear one of them singing from the treetops!  Their distinct song floating down from high in the forest’s canopy is somewhat reminiscent of an American Robin’s, but with a raspier edge to it.  The Scarlet Tanagers seem to favor spending most of their time up high near the crowns of the tall mature trees of the woods, making them sometimes difficult to spot.  Sometimes though, they come down from the treetops and hang out on some of the lower branches giving us birders an opportunity to see and photograph them. 

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Another brilliantly colored male Scarlet Tanager in the Hoover Forest Preserve. Photograph by Tom Schrader

Another Beautiful Bird

Scarlet Tanagers and their cousins, Summer Tanagers occur fairly frequently in our Fox Valley Area.  The male Summer Tanager is also a red bird although a more muted-red than his Scarlet kin.  Summer Tanagers also lack the contrasting black tail feathers of the Scarlet Tanager.  Young male Summer Tanagers display a variety of yellow, mauve, and red blotches on their plumage that remind me of flying bowl of rainbow sherbet!  They are beautiful birds in their own right.  I observed several of them earlier in the summer in the Hoover Preserve as well.  Both Scarlet and Summer Tanagers breed in our area during the warm months and migrate south to Central and South America for the winter.

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A male Summer Tanager perched in a tree near a campsite in the Hoover Forest Preserve. Photograph by Tom Schrader
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A different perspective of the Summer Tanager in the Hoover Forest Preserve. Photograph by Tom Schrader

An Exotic Beauty

Another really spectacular Tanager that very infrequently visits our area is the Western Tanager.  Western Tanagers are at home in the conifer forests of the American West and are very far out of their range when they appear in the Fox Valley.  I have never personally seen a Western Tanager in Illinois but my friend, Dan, saw and photographed a beautiful male in Yorkville in May of 2020 (see photos).  It seems that every couple of years, a very few Western Tanagers stray into northern Illinois and are observed and photographed by people lucky enough to spot them!  This year, there have been sightings of these truly spectacular birds in the Fox River watershed in Lake County and just outside of our watershed in Winnebago County.

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A very rare (for Illinois) Western Tanager photographed in Yorkville, Illinois in May, 2020. Photograph courtesy
of Daniel Baechle
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Another view of the spectacular Western Tanager in Yorkville, Illinois. May, 2020. Photograph courtesy of Daniel Baechle

Next time you’re out for a summer hike in the woods, keep your eyes and ears open for a flash of scarlet high up in the treetops or a slightly raspy sounding Robin-like song raining down from above.  You may get the thrill of seeing a beautiful Scarlet Tanager or its cousin, a Summer Tanager for yourself.  If you’re really, really lucky you may even spot a Western Tanager!  Until next month, get outside and enjoy the natural wonders our beautiful Fox River valley provides for us.