Summer Tanager

by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist

Four Keys to ID

1. Size and Shape – Medium sized songbird with a big body, large head and thick, blunt-tipped bill
2. Color Pattern – Adult males are entirely bright red but females and immatures are bright yellow-green. Molting immature males ( as photographed ) can be patchy yellow and red.
3. Behavior – Stay fairly high in the forest canopy, sitting still waiting to catch insects or moving slowly along the branches for a meal. Males have a whistling song, similar to an American Robin.
4. Habitat – Breed amongst deciduous trees or mix pine-oak woodlands.

The Summer Tanager closely resembles the Scarlet Tanager and Western Tanager

The Signs of Spring are in Southwest Florida, although recent cooler weather might not make you think so! Spring in Florida is considered the months of March, April and May. During the same time, millions of birds are on their way from their wintering areas in Central America, South America and the Caribbean Islands to more northerly breeding grounds. Sanibel Island is actually considered one of Florida’s “Migrant Traps” and is a stopover for many birds to fuel up for the remainder of their flight or a haven for them when a weather front from the Northwest might push them off of the migratory path, landing them on our bountiful island. Trees and bushes can be adorned with the sights and sounds of seldom seen songbirds such as Tanagers, Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings and a variety of Orioles. This is exactly the time, a few years ago, this Summer Tanager was photographed in a Gumbo Limbo tree at The Sanctuary Golf Club.

The Summer Tanager, Piranga rubra, is considered the only completely red bird in North America, although as photographed can be bright yellow and red, signifying a molting immature male. The habitat of the Summer Tanager is in wooded groves, especially oaks, in the Southeast. It forages mainly in the tops of trees, where it often makes short flights throughout the canopy to capture flying insects in mid-air or picking them from the high tree branches.

They feed primarily on insects but will also feed on berries and small fruits depending on the time of the year and availability. Bees and wasps are favorites of the Summer Tanager and somehow they escape the sting of these prey even while breaking into the wasp nest to feed on the larvae inside. Beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers and spiders round out the diet of the tanager.

Females typically lay 3-5 eggs and incubate for only 11-12 days. Once hatched, both parents feed the nestlings and the young leave the nest in quick fashion within 10 days, barely capable of flight. In the beginning of the breeding season, males sing and chase each other vigorously to define territorial boundaries and each male has only one mate per breeding season.

The Summer Tanager is one to keep an eye out for this spring! Often, just identifying one will lead to some great birding where many other migrants can be seem and enjoyed. Often, you’ll observe them atop one of our many native Strangler Figs plucking the fruit, fueling up for the next leg of their migration north.

To see current bird sightings on the island, check out floridabirdingtrail.com for some excellent photos of both permanent residents of Florida as well as the migrants that visit the Sunshine State. Recent e-bird sightings are posted, which note the date and observer for birds all around the islands. It’s a great way to plan a birding trip and grab a glimpse of a new bird for you or just a great day for spring birding on Sanibel. Enjoy!

Cool Fact: The Summer Tanager is a bee and wasp specialist, catching and killing them often in flight by beating them against a branch. Before eating the bee, the tanager rubs in on a branch to remove the stinger. Cool!

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