How a rare encounter with a summer tanager made this birder's day
One of my favorite spring rituals is the Birdwatching Open at Cantigny Golf in Wheaton, held every year on World Migratory Bird Day. The 12th edition of the "the Open" took place May 8, our first since 2019 due to the pandemic. The idea is to find as many kinds of birds as we can at the golf course. That is our score, and, unlike golf itself, the higher the better. Flyovers count!
But early May is finicky. The birding can be crazy good. Or not. Spring migration plays out a little differently every year. Timing is everything.
Unfortunately, the 2021 Birdwatching Open, coinciding with the countywide Spring Bird Count, took place during a migratory lull. We finished our "round" with only 55 species heard or seen -- laughably short of our record 87 species in 2018.
It was far from a bad day, however. How could it be? Baltimore orioles were plentiful, seven kinds of warblers gave us peeks, and we found a nesting pair of red-headed woodpeckers. Our group of 15 hiked five miles, didn't freeze or get wet and shared some laughs -- including a few with the paying customers.
I think the golfers get a kick out of us. They make jokes about birdies and never seem to mind sharing the course. Some are genuinely curious about what we are doing and want to know our "best bird" so far.
The best bird for me, personally, was still to come. And not at the golf course.
After the Open, I went over to Cantigny Park to do a quick survey, so the park property would not go unrepresented in the Spring Bird Count, a census organized by the DuPage Birding Club. It was almost 4 p.m., I was exhausted and a little birded out. But off I went, searching for birds amid gaggles of photo-crazy prom and wedding celebrants. They had to be wondering about the guy with binoculars.
I found a few birds that we hadn't seen on the golf course, including chipping sparrow, swamp sparrow and chestnut-sided warbler. Most notably, I got a fix on two great-horned owlets in a nest high above the Army tanks. A few hours earlier, our Birdwatching Open group, desperate for another species, had tried unsuccessfully to spot the owlets from the golf course side of the fence. Alas, too many leaves.
My car was parked behind the office building near the greenhouse. As I packed up, my mind was on food and a cold IPA. Then a calling bird grabbed my attention. I followed the sound and 20 steps away, while still in the parking lot, I found myself eye to eye with a beautiful summer tanager. Hold that beer!
My first thought was why am I seeing this amazing bird all by myself? Some birds are meant to be shared. I managed a few decent photos for documentation and later confirmed that it was Cantigny's first summer tanager on record, species No. 187 for the property list.
That evening, it dawned on me that the tanager was near a cluster of Cantigny beehives. Sure enough, a little quick research revealed that honeybees are one of the summer tanager's favorite foods. Coincidentally, six days later, I received the Bird of the Week email from the American Bird Conservancy. You guessed it, summer tanager.
I learned a lot from the ABC email. The summer tanager has a nickname, the bee bird. Using its thick, pointed bill, it snatches bees and wasps out of the air like a flycatcher -- a behavior I observed. Back on its perch, the bird subdues its prey and removes the stinger before chowing down.
Here's a bit of trivia: the male adult summer tanager is the only entirely red bird in North America. Chicagoland is at the far northern edge its migratory range, so the bird is uncommon here. It winters in Mexico and South America in the company of many tropical tanager species that never enter the United States.
Two other tanagers visit our region. The eye-popping scarlet tanager is the "expected" species, and our Birdwatching Open group was eager to see one. No luck. A week later, a scarlet lit up my yard, making my day just like the summer tanager before it.
The third potential tanager species is western, a true rarity around here. Many birders saw their first western tanager in Illinois last December in Channahon, including me. That bird was out of place and out of season, but a handful of westerns are spotted every year in the state.
The day of the Open, a western tanager was briefly seen at La Bagh Woods in Cook County by birders who were observing a broad-billed hummingbird -- an astounding Chicago daily double! Birding is full of surprises.
I do not claim to be a tanager magnet. Far from it. The Cantigny summer tanager was my first look at that species since 2008 at Morton Arboretum. But now I have The Cap. Yes, my current favorite headgear for birding features a western tanager on the front, a gift from my brother in Arizona. As a tanager attractant, it seems to be working.
• Jeff Reiter's column appears regularly in Neighbor. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.