15 September 2014. Cayuga ON. Last year, around this time, while doing the daily census at the bird observatory, I took long-distance photos of a couple of mystery birds. They were both high up and hard to get really good looks at. Still my photos were passable so I posted them on a local birding site and asked for others’ opinions. The consensus was that they were both of Scarlet Tanagers, either males in non-breeding plumage, or females, or juveniles. You see, while identifying and appreciating a male Scarlet Tanager in May or June is easy, the same cannot be said for late summer and fall when all of that glorious red-hot scarlet has given way to a drab olive green; now the males look like the females and juveniles. Here’s a couple of shots to illustrate.
Today, I spent the morning at the bird observatory and, as usual, undertook the daily census walk. It’s a hike of a kilometer or so around a prescribed route of various habitats, the task is to record all birds seen and heard. The hike is almost always rewarding and often surprising; only once or twice in the many years I’ve been doing the census have I not enjoyed it and those were only days when it was really miserably cold. The census today turned up a good variety of species including a couple of Black-throated Green Warblers and a Chestnut-sided Warbler, I heard Warbling and Yellow-throated Vireos and saw a couple of Red-eyed Vireos too, all of these birds are heading south, well south, for the winter. I caught sight of a Scarlet Tanager and knew it for what it was, it may be a drab greenish colour, but it’s profile is unmistakable.
In the high tops of some Black Walnut trees I found an Eastern Wood Peewee which was fly-catching and feeding a juvenile. This dependency upon the adult by a young struck me as very late, but from the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, 2001-2005, I learned that egg laying continues into mid August, so perhaps it’s not so unusual; there’s always something new to learn.
Anyway, back to Bird of the Day. Also high in the tree tops was a yellowish-green bird actively preening itself. It hurt my neck trying to hold still and watch it, my inclination was that I was watching a Yellow-throated Vireo, a choice that was reinforced by the call of another one off to my left. I used my camera to get several shots of it and thought that I could comfortably double-check my identification a little later, somewhere less awkward and involving less neck pain. Identification from below can be a challenge. Well, the upshot of all of this is that, on reviewing the pictures, it became clear that it was not a Yellow-throated Vireo I had been watching (and photographing, thank goodness) but rather another Scarlet Tanager, probably a female. The rather stout beak, a slight fork in the tail and the extent of yellow underneath from throat to tail were indicative. The yellow on the underside of a Yellow-throated Vireo is limited to its breast, and then it’s white from belly to tail. As I said above, there’s always something new to learn and for the teachable moment it was my Bird of the Day.
Above is a series of those photos of it preening. It was some fifty feet above me and hardly ever still, I had hoped to capture at least one good full headshot but it turned away every time just as I pressed the shutter.