Scarlet Tanager: it sounds like something you might order at a bar in Cancun, but in fact happens to be the name of strikingly beautiful bird. The male, in breeding colors of brilliant red with black wings, is about seven inches long with a wingspan of 11 inches or so. Some of you local Alert Readers may be familiar with the more common Summer Tanager, not at all unusual in Oklahoma, particularly in the, well…summer.For years, I’ve been aching for a chance to photograph the Scarlet but it was not to be. Oh, there were sightings, or so I’d heard, just down the road in the Ancient Forest Preserve. But the bird remained elusive to these old eyes, nary a glimpse much less an image. And so it was when I read about a place called High Island in Texas where the Scarlet is not rare but downright common in the month of April, I had to go.
High Island, Texas is on a tall salt dome on the Bolivar Peninsula at the extreme eastern end of Galveston County. Its thirty-eight-foot rise above sea level makes High Island the highest point on the Gulf of Mexico. Its wooded areas are unlike anything elsewhere on the upper Texas coast and provide a natural refuge for migrating birds working their way north.My first day at High Island was dark and overcast; nothing like what the weather boys had predicted when I left home. So what else is new? Nobody can predict weather in the spring. The Audubon Society manages four refuges here, one of which is called the Boy Scout Woods, and that’s where I started my pursuit of the elusive Scarlet. Just inside the gate stood, of all things to see in the woods, a grandstand, for the sole purpose of watching water drip to see what birds were attracted to it. The grandstand was at full capacity. Whoa, this was some serious watching going on here. I stood at one end, watched the drip, drip, drip for a while, saw a few birds, no Scarlet, and moved on.
But on the very first trail, high in a tree, a flash of red. YES! At last, a good look. The problem was, I had a 400 mm lens, hand held, and the bird was a good 30 yards away. Here, let me just say that a 7 inch bird, at that distance, bobbing on a twig in 15 mph wind on a dark overcast day, is not an easy subject. I grabbed two quick frames and whoof, the bird flew away. A quick review of the LCD screen confirmed my fear, not sharp, not sharp at all. ARRGGGGHHHH! Surely there would be other more photographer friendly opportunities, but nooooo. It would be the only Scarlet Tanager I would see for three more days.One of the events that High Island is famous for is the so called “fall out”. This is the rare phenomena where a weather front from the north moves in with falling temps and high winds, effectively halting the bird migration. The birds, exhausted from fighting the wind and cold, land at the first wooded spot they see–High Island–and stop to rest, maybe have a drink or two. My plans were to leave the next morning, but after watching the Weather Channel that night, I changed my mind. The prediction (there’s that prediction thing again) was that the temperature would drop to 58 degrees overnight with rain and 15-25 mph wind out of the north. Hey, are we talking fall out or what? I made a new reservation.
This time, the weather folks were right. The rain, the cold, the wind, all happened just as they said it would. I was at High Island at first light. So was half of Houston. The parking lot, only dotted with cars the day before, was packed, with the overflow stretching down the road for a hundred yards or more. The word was out. Damn birders.I had a spot in mind. It was a mulberry tree just a short walk from the parking lot where several species were observed the day before, enjoying the fruit; Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Eastern Kingbird, to name a few. Guess what other bird loves mulberries? Hee,hee, you guessed it.
But someone had beaten me to the tree. A guy in typical birder/photographer apparel–vest, floppy hat, long-sleeved shirt with pants tucked inside his socks, binoculars, and a camera– was staring intently into the branches. I quietly asked him if he had seen any Scarlet Tanagers.“Yes, he said, enthusiastically, his eyes bright with excitement. “Not more than a few minutes ago.”
Hoo Boy.But the guy was like a Jack Russell Terrier with a squirrel up a tree. Round and round the tree he went, never stopping, poking his lens between the branches, effectively scaring the bejesus out of any bird that had any inkling of landing for a quick berry or two. I watched, I waited, hoping the guy would give up and move on. Didn’t happen. That’s when I spotted a Scarlet Tanager amidst a very thick tree, the branches so dense, a photo was impossible. I could see the poor bird was starving for a mulberry. I wanted to tell the guy, “Hey dumb shit, get the hell out of there and quit scaring the birds.” But sensing that particular comment would not fit within the Birders Rules of Etiquette, I tried a different approach.
“Excuse me, sir. I’m rather new at this but I was thinking, maybe if we backed away from the tree a bit, perhaps the birds would be less fearful in their approach.”The man looked at me and blinked his eyes like a bullfrog in a hailstorm. “Yeah, he said. “Okay.” and went right on with his manic maneuvers, flitting around and poking between the branches with his point and shoot.
The Scarlet Tanager, bless his brave little heart, said hell with it and made a dash for the tree. I had the camera set to six frames per second and got off three quick shots, only one of which was decent before the Scarlet said Screw this. This ain’t the only mulberry tree in town, and left for parts unknown.All in all, it was good outing. Got a few new photos, enjoyed the fresh Gulf air, even saw an alligator or two. I would make one small suggestion to the Audubon Society. Have one day for birders and one day for photographers, maybe alternate days. Let’s face it, the two species do not mix well. Violators would be banned from High Island. Seems fair to me.
The fall out? Didn't happen. Not that I could tell anyway. I guess birds don't always follow the rules.