Featured bird: Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea).
Description: medium-sized tropical songbird. Adult breeding males are bright red with black wings and tail. Splotchy green-and-red in late summer, molts to yellow-green in winter. Females are yellowish on the underpants and olive on top, with olive-brown wings and tail. Feeds mainly on fruit and insects.
Range: breeds in large forested areas across eastern North America. Scarlet Tanagers escape winter by migrating around October to Mexico, Central America and northwestern South America, then flying back through Central America around April as far north as Canada. By May the first dominant males are back on breeding grounds displaying their scarlet plumage.
Status: extremely large range, stable population trend and large population size place this species in the “Least Concern” category according to Red List.
What makes a bird “rare”? A species that is considered rare in one part of the globe is deemed common somewhere else. A couple of days ago the thought crossed my mind as I scrolled online through excited accounts of sightings of Tropical Mockingbirds (Mimus gilvus) by Texas birders. Here in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mimus gilvus is a common resident, known locally as Cenzontle. Being common, mind you, does not make it any less beautiful in plumage or song. I have photographed them many times and will continue to do so as opportunities arise.
A “rare” bird is then, at least from a very personal and unscientific perspective, one we haven’t seen before. Spring is a most exciting time for bird aficionados, as the migration of many species and the beginning of the mating season provide plenty of action and many sightings that are of a seasonal nature and may therefore qualify as rare for some birders.
In my usual birding grounds hummingbirds have been quite active these past few days, and as I walked out of the house five days ago, camera and monopod in hand, it was them I was hoping to photograph. I had only taken a few steps away from the house, though, when at a distance, high on the branches of a tree, a flash of intense red caught my eye instantly. A color so unusual to me that, upon first glance, my confused mind asked: a flower, perhaps?
One look through the lens dispelled such ludicrous notion and put me eye to eye with a bird of plumage so red it was hard to believe. I took a few shots from where I was standing, then walked into the bush, trying to approach it. I managed to get somewhat closer by walking carefully, but one step too many on dry leaves and branches was all it took to make it fly further into the foliage. Still savoring the sighting and trying not to feel disappointed I walked back to the edge of the road and focused for a few minutes on yet another Oriole, so common around these parts (Hooded or Altamira? Can’t really tell from where I am…)
Then, all of a sudden, there it was again, the fiery red bird, this time much closer.
Perched on a branch a few feet above me, it remained still for a long time doing nothing: not eating, not flying, not jumping out of the branch for a quick return after grabbing an airborne insect. Dusk began to fall on both of us, yet he never moved, so I decided to be thankful for the images already achieved and let him be, even if it meant not getting an opportunity to attempt a bird-in-flight shot, which would most likely turn out blurry anyway as light was already too dim for high shutter speeds.
Back home, field guides and computer at hand, facts about the beautiful bird became readily available: it was a Scarlet tanager. I found echoes of the sense of amazement I had just experienced in a quote from Thoreau, dated way back on May 23, 1853: “That contrast of a red bird with the green pines and the blue sky! Even when I have heard his note and look for him and find the bloody fellow, sitting on a dead twig of a pine, I am always startled. […] That incredible red, with the green and blue, as if these were the trinity we wanted. […] I am transported; these are not the woods I ordinarily walk in. How he enhances the wildness and wealth of the woods!”
The Scarlet tanager, despite its most distinctive plumage and very descriptive common name, has nevertheless been the victim of several forms of, shall we say, mistaken identity. Consider its scientific name: it seems the first specimen to be caught and described in 1789 by German naturalist and chemist Johann Friedrich Gmelin was a young male not displaying the scarlet plumage, therefore the latin term olivacea was used (“the olive colored one”) rather than erythromelas (“the red and black one”). In more recent years, and thanks to a new generation of zoologists working with molecular science, the Scarlet tanager has been “moved out” of the tanager family (Thraupidae) and is now classified in the cardinal family (Cardinalidae).
So there you go: the Scarlet tanager is not really scarlet most of the year, has a latin name that describes it as being olive green, and to top it off, is no longer a tanager! A striking bird he remains nonetheless.
Many birders are already aware of how new generations of zoologists seem determined, in the name of science of course, to wreak havoc on their much treasured “life lists”: species are being moved out of some families and placed elsewhere as a result of studies pioneered in the 1960s by American ornithologist Charles Gald Sibley, who first proposed the use of birds’ DNA sequences to establish molecular phylogenetics, the analysis of hereditary molecular differences in DNA sequences to gain information on an organism’s evolutionary relationships. The resulting data is being used to rethink taxonomies and many species are being reclassified as a result of such studies.
The Scarlet tanager is still listed as a member of the Thraupidae family in my copy of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, an excuse as good as any to get the updated Sixth Edition of that excellent guide as soon as possible. In the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America the listing of this species is under a headline for “Tanagers, Cardinals and their Allies – Families: Cardinalidae, Coerebidae, Thraupidae”, so it seems molecular zoologists haven’t managed to outdate that part of the book… yet. Just in case you’re wondering, there’s no relation between noted ornithologist Charles Sibley and the David Sibley of the famous Sibley Field Guides, so no, this wasn’t a case of “insider information”.
Perhaps there is, however, some hope for those nervous “listers” out there who fear for the integrity of their life-lists, as well as for the many field guides on bookshelves all over the planet at risk of being outdated. As Janice M- Hughes explains in her fascinating book The Migration of Birds – Seasons on the Wing: “Despite the recent intense focus on unraveling the genetic mysteries of life on earth, it took hundreds of molecular geneticists 13 years to map the DNA of a single species – ourselves. Intimate knowledge of avian DNA across all 10,000 species is still generations away”. So change is coming, but no so fast.
Scarlet tanagers are often described as being hard to see, due to their behavior and choice of habitat. For me this was truly a lucky encounter, regardless of human-given names and taxonomies. Of course I looked for the bird again the following day, and the one after that. He wasn’t there. Most likely this was just a brief stopover on his journey back to breeding grounds up north. He was probably too tired to perform any acrobatics in front of my lens. I don’t mind. He has given me not only one more species for my growing photo-list, but also the lingering sensation of walking out everyday with a fair chance of finding something rare.
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (Fifth Edition), edited by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, by David Allen Sibley
Aves Comunes de la Península de Yucatán, by Eduardo Llamosa Neumann with illustrations by Gladys M. Rodríguez
Sauntering with Thoreau – Nature rambles literary and otherwise
RED LIST – The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
Map of migration route by the United States Geological Survey