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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

#11: Scarlet Tanager - Mason Farm, NC

There are some birds that you cannot help but remember the first time you saw one. Stuff like Cardinals and Chickadees are birds I grew up with, so it's hard to tell the difference between individuals I saw before I was birding, and the birds that came afterwards. But I sure as hell remember the very first time I saw a Scarlet Tanager.

It was way back when I was taking Ornithology in college (a great class, by the way, I highly recommend it). Anyway, for this particular class we took a field trip up to Craven Gap, a high-elevation trail that lies right along the Blue Ridge Parkway near the southern end of the Pisgah National Forest. After winding up the hairpin turns of a rather precarious gravel road (where, incidentally, I picked up my lifer Wild Turkey), we parked at the trailhead and stepped out of the school vans. Immediately, the professor perked up his ears.

“Ya hear that? What is it?” He knew exactly what it was, of course, but he was testing the class to see if we’d actually studied.

Scarlet Tanager?” I asked, a wild guess, more because that’s what I hoped it would be. And sure enough that’s what it was!

I think there was a female present, but it was hard to be sure because all the class’s binoculars were trained on the stunning male individual in front of us, a bright crimson bird with jet-black wings, positively glowing in the sunlight. It’s almost indescribable how vibrant red a Scarlet Tanager really is; you have to see it to believe it! Luckily it’s something I can look forward to twice a year.

According to the range maps, Scarlet Tanagers can be found in central North Carolina all summer, but for whatever reason I’ve only been able to find them during migration. And, of course, during fall migration, most of the males are a nice yellowish-green, having molted out of their breeding colors. But in late May at Mason Farm, James and I ran into this beautiful male Scarlet Tanager, who gave me the best look I’ve ever had.

Scarlet Tanager - Mason Farm, NC; 05/22/2010

I think the only way we could get a better shot is if we find one nice and in the light (this day happened to be a little cloudy). Still, I doubt I’ll ever get closer to one of these birds than I did that day, and ever since I saw that first one, it’s remained one of my favorite birds in the entire country.

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