Summer Tanager: An Unusual Presence

Leonard Weber

May 2, 2023

Few things attract bird enthusiasts more than the unexpected presence of an attractive bird in a location where it is not usually found. Recently, birders have been “flocking” to Eliza Howell Park in Detroit in search of an immature male Summer Tanager.

Photo courtesy of Melissa McLeod

Summer Tanagers are normally found from Ohio southward in the breeding season and in Central and South America in the winter.

Range map from Connell Lab of Ornithology

Adult males are red all year, in contrast to the Scarlet Tanager that breeds in Michigan. The male Scarlet Tanager has bright breeding plumage only in the spring and summer.

The next photo, of an adult male Summer Tanager, was taken in a southwestern state.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber

In the spring and summer after the hatch  year, young males are still transitioning from the mostly yellow look of the young to the red adult look. (Some bird guides do not show this mixed red and yellow phase.)

Females are yellowish. The photo, taken in Ohio, is of a female in a nest. Note the characteristic large bill.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber

On April 19, I first saw the immature male in the park, managing to get a photo, with my phone camera, the next day. It is not of good quality but is sufficiently clear for identification purposes.

There are different ways in which the bird’s presence is unusual.

First, it is considerably north of its range. On its first time migrating north, this young male got lost.

Second, April 19 is very early for Summer Tanagers to reach any breeding grounds north of the Ohio River. The time of arrival is almost as unexpected as the location. Other examples that I recall of Summer Tanagers over-flying their normal range have been in early May.

My report of the bird’s presence on April 20 (on the Facebook group “Birding Michigan”) led a number of birders to the park, with their binoculars and cameras. Not everyone spotted the hard-to-find tanager, but some had success. And they posted their findings elsewhere, leading to an increased number of bird seekers.

As of May 1, the young male was still present. This long of a stay in a foreign territory may also be unusual, but I do not know the typical behavior of lost young male Summer Tanagers.

It seems like even a lost immature bird finds Eliza Howell Park so irresistible that it doesn’t want to go home!

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