By Larry Czajkoski
I photographed this male and female Summer Tanager couple while I was on a hike on Young’s Mountain in Lake Lure at the end of May. This pair of birds shows the wonderful contrast of the different physical characteristics of the male and female of this particular species. Only the male Summer Tanager is red and he maintains his rosy red coloration throughout the year; the female is olive-backed with yellow-orange under parts. Given the time of year and the plumpness of the female, I would say she is very pregnant and she is getting ready to lay her eggs. She will also build their shallow, somewhat flimsy nest cup made of weed stems, leaves, and fine grasses…and locate it on a horizontal branch well away from the tree trunk. But don’t think it is just the female doing all the work ladies; the male helps her feed the nestlings until the young leave the nest at about two weeks of age.
Summer Tanagers are insect-eaters, and they are noted for their fearless predation of wasps, bees, and other stinging creatures. Like this couple, Summer Tanagers normally creep along tree branches scanning for insects, but they can also hover to glean insects from hanging leaves or capture flying insects with short flights from a perch.
Also known as the “summer redbird” to distinguish it from the South’s other “redbird”, the familiar Cardinal, the Summer Tanager is a neotropical migrant arriving on its US breeding grounds in North Carolina in early May and departing, as a rule, by mid-fall. It spends the rest of the time at and migrating to and from its winter home in South America. Its preferred habitat is dry, open woods of oak, hickory, or pine. Even though these are vibrant colorful birds, they are not always easily spotted. So use another of your senses and listen for their robin-like cheerily cheer-up song; or their call, a staccato pik-i-tuck-i-tuck.