East-meets-Western Tanager

Keep and eye out for this colorful, wandering songbird

By Susan Campbell

Along the coast of North Carolina, we occasionally find western wanderers soaring overhead, perched in the treetops, or even at a feeder. Endowed with wings, birds can (and do) end up anywhere. That is the most exciting part of birdwatching: You never know who might show up!

Some birds are quite prone to vagrancy. Whether this is a result of wandering, getting lost or blown off course, we usually cannot say for certain. Species that are long-distance migrants are, not surprisingly, at risk for mishaps en route. Very little about migration is understood even though it has been studied a great deal. The facts are that birds do migrate and most individuals are successful, which allows their genes to propagate the next generation. Birds that end up off track are not bound to stay lost forever or perish due to a wrong turn. In fact, we believe that these outliers, these out-of-place individuals, can represent the beginning of a range expansion for their species. Some wrong turns are fortuitous! Historical records have been kept long enough that we now have documented evidence of bird populations shifting to new areas of the United States.

The western tanager is one species that has been observed in the winter more and more frequently outside its normal range. This small but colorful songbird, mainly yellow with a red-orange blaze on its face and black wings, is found in wooded habitats in the western United States during the summer months. Come fall, they head for Mexico and Central America. However, in the early 1990s, one showed up at a feeder in Wilmington and stayed — not just one winter — but returned for two more. It fed on suet, shelled seeds and fruit during its stay. Since then, more than a dozen other western tanagers have been documented along the southern coast of our state.

What does this mean? It is probably too soon to tell if they’ll be frequent visitors, but Southeastern bird lovers should keep an eye out for westerns this winter. A western could certainly turn up.

Anyone feeding Baltimore orioles has the best chance of having a western mixed in. They are similar in size and shape to orioles, but have a heavier bill. They will be incognito; all tanagers molt twice a year and happen to be drab from early fall through early spring, making identification tricky when these birds appear in the east. But, unlike our more familiar summer and scarlet tanagers, westerns have noticeable barring on their wings and are a bit brighter yellow on their under parts.

I would wager that very few people reading this column have ever seen a western tanager, but it pays to be prepared with binoculars and a good field guide should something odd like this show up. Rarities are always possible — whether you are visiting a large wildlife refuge, or local park, a McDonald’s parking lot or simply your own backyard.

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos via email at susan@ncaves.com

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