Feb 21 2011
This beautiful bird is a male western tanager.
Because I don’t go west very often, I’ve only seen one once — at Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevadas. At the time it was July and he was in breeding plumage with a completely orange-red face.
Western tanagers (Piranga ludoviciana) are truly western birds. If you draw a line down the middle of North America they’re always west of it (the 104th meridian). Even then, they spend most of the year outside the United States in southwestern Mexico, south to Costa Rica.
Western tanagers breed in North American forests and travel farther north than any other tanager, ranging all the way to Canada’s Northwest Territory. The birds who travel that far have such a long trip that they spend only two months on their breeding grounds.
Right now, except for a small winter range in coastal southern California, these birds are still in Mexico and Central America. They’ll head north with the main body of spring migrants, arriving at this latitude in late April or early May. It’s something to look forward to out west, just as we look forward to scarlet tanagers in the east.
But, alas, it’s still winter. The tanagers are not here, not now.
(photo by Julie Brown)