By Melissa Sladek
From my office window, I see him. His stark contrast with the dark and light greens of the surrounding forest catches my eye. Today, he is busy…I’ve now seen him three times flying back and forth across the road.
My coworkers and I started to notice this male western tanager at some point in the summer. His flashy yellow and black body and red head are show stoppers, causing me to freeze in my tracks during my expeditions in and out of the Research Learning Center at Glacier National Park.
The headquarters area in Glacier is actually a perfect habitat for the Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana). During the summer months, this colorful bird lives in open coniferous forests or mixed woods across western North America. They range from the U.S.-Mexican border all the way to southern Alaska, making them the northernmost breeding tanager. Their summer diet consists mainly of insects, although the birds have been seen to eat berries and other fruit. Once the rich growth of summer fades, the medium-sized songbird prepares for the long flight to its wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. There, the tanagers settle in pine-oak woodlands, forest edges, and coffee plantations.
I remember first seeing this rainbow of a bird while hiking at Lone Pine State Park. The bird struck me due to its splash of color on an otherwise dreary, rainy June day. For me, it brought hope that the sunny happy days of summer in the Flathead were just around the corner. And, until then, I had the Western Tanager to keep my spirits up.
As with most songbirds, the male Western Tanager is more colorful than the female. Compared to the bright yellow underparts of the male, the female’s underparts are olive green. She also has less contrast between her breast and the gray of her back and wings. Her tail consists of a grayish-brown or olive color. Both male and female have two wing bars on each wing. Males have one bright yellow and one white wing bar, whereas both wing bars may be white on females or one may be pale yellow.
The male tanager flittering through the woods of park headquarters was most likely helping his female partner with the young of the year. The female builds an open-cup, shallow nest made of twigs, grasses, and bark strips. It is typically placed in coniferous trees toward the end of horizontal branches and is lined with grass, hair or plant fibers. The female produces three to five glossy blue, brown-spotted eggs, which she incubates for about 13 days. The young leave the nest about 11 to 15 days later, but do tend to stay close to their parents for two more weeks.
By September, all Western Tanagers will be on their way to the warmer climates of Central America and Mexico. Although they normally migrate alone, they are also seen migrating in groups of 30. Migration is often the time when they are spotted. Last June, the Missoulian reported overwhelming numbers of Western Tanagers seen along the Clark Fork River. Apparently, the wet spring we had this year gave life to an abundance of bugs and caused many a Western Tanager to stop for a snack on their way north.
Unfortunately, we’re not always as lucky spotting these bright beauties in the summer. Most often, the birds are foraging for insects in the tree tops, high above most of our purviews. But, this summer I was fortunate. My brightly feathered friend gave me plenty of opportunities to stop, watch and admire as he sped past. I’m sure I was just on his regular foraging route, but I like to think he knew that he brightened my day…especially during those endless June days of rain and gloom.