The Summer Tanager
Which summer TOURIST in Clark county wetlands park is sometimes known as the “Beebird?”
Summer Tanagers visit southern Nevada not for the entertainment on the Strip, but for the bees and wasps they hunt in the leafy cover of the Park’s dense riparian woodland! Despite the name, Summer Tanagers are not true tanagers. They are part of the cardinal family and can raise a short, fluffy crest of feathers to show it!
These brightly colored birds (males are head-to-toe rosy red and females are mustard yellow) winter from Mexico south to Bolivia and two subspecies visit or breed in parts of the southern US from April to mid-fall. In spite of their bright coloring, they are quite hard to see on their perches high in the mature cottonwoods and willows along Wetlands Park’s water courses.
Tanagers often sit quietly while scanning the branches around them for bees, wasps, beetles, cicadas, grasshoppers, flies, and spiders. They also will dine on available fruits and berries.
The birds may “creep” slowly along a branch until they spot their prey. They capture flying insects in mid-air with short flights from their perch, or even hover to glean them from a hanging leaf!
Bees and wasps are favored foods, and Tanagers give them special treatment. The birds grab them in their beaks and beat them to death against a branch. A brisk rub against the bark removes the dangerous stinger before the birds dine.
David Allen Sibley, in What It’s Like to Be A Bird, says the tanager “gives no thought to hopping from twig to twig eighty feet up in the air, then jumping into the open air to catch a passing insect, or flying across a fifty-foot gap to the next twig.”
Sighting a Summer Tanager is a rare treat at Wetlands Park. Bring your binoculars. Along the trail under tall trees, stop once in a while. Tilt your head back to observe the upper canopy and watch for a bright red or mustard yellow flash of motion in the leaves far above. You might just get lucky!
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-By Chris Leavitt; photo by Philip Martini