Mystery Bird: Scarlet Tanager, Piranga olivacea

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[Mystery bird] Scarlet Tanager, Piranga olivacea, photographed in Newton Hills State Park in South Dakota. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]

Image: Terry Sohl, 16 May 2007 [larger view].

Photo taken with a Canon 20D, 400 5.6L.

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

Rick Wright, author of Aimophila Adventures and Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:

Blur your eyes a little and step back from the monitor: what do you see? I see a smallish bird but not small, yellowish but not yellow, quiet but not dumpy. It seems to be perched fairly high in the shady canopy, too.

All of that should probably make us think of a tanager, and a quick look at the bird's bill confirms the thought. Note that in the current view, "our" Piranga tanagers aren't really "tanagers" at all but rather cardinalids, more closely related to the Passerina buntings, Pheucticus grosbeaks, and cardinals than to the fancy tropical tanagers of Central and South America. But that doesn't change the fact that we've narrowed our possibilities north of Mexico to just a few birds called "tanager."

Starting at the bird's tail, we see that the underside of the dark rectrices contrasts markedly with the pale undertail coverts. The uniform blackish hue of the tail rules out Summer, Hepatic, and Flame-colored Tanagers and Western Spindalis.

We're left with Scarlet and Western Tanagers. The plain wing, olive rather than yellow tone to the body, and absence of pale on the lower mandible all neatly eliminate Western Tanager.

Scarlet Tanagers will be arriving in the next few weeks across the eastern half of the US and southern Canada, and if you know what the females look like, you'll get to see twice as many this spring!

Review all mystery birds to date.

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I am new to the site and an amateur birdwatcher, certainly not an expert. I think this might be a female or juvenile prothonotary warbler. It has a dull yellow color on the head and breast (indicating a juvenile or female, since it isn't bright yellow)and blue-gray wings and tail. I think it should be more whitish underneath the tail area though for the prothonotary warbler. Thanks!

I won't guess today, because I got an unfair hint. But I'd suggest to Hollie that you focus on the size and shape of the beak. I've always found beaks to be really helpful for the initial step of putting the bird in the proper family. Plumage details can vary really dramatically between different species, and even between different individuals of the same species, or the same individual at different times of year. But beak structure, being so closely tied to the bird's feeding behavior, tends to be very useful for that first classification step.

Hi John, Thanks for the hint. I'm afraid I'm still stumped and obviously have a lot to learn. I can't wait to find out what this one is. Thanks again.

As a college student in an ornithology course, I've been working on my birds and finding this has been a great help!

Using my Peterson's Eastern Field Guide, based off of coloring and location I'd guess a Yellow Warbler, but as John mentioned, the bill is wrong.

The bill is definitely suggesting a vireo, but the presence of a lot of yellow, plain head, and lack of wing bars seems to eliminate all of those in my field guide. But for a best-guess I'll go with a Philadelphia Vireo, maybe a juvenile, even though it's slightly out of range.

Large bill + yellow-green overall color + dark wing covers = Scarlet Tanager.

I'll add it is not scarlet because its not a male in breeding plumage

Hmmmm. That bill definitely says Tanager to me, but I can't tell whether it's female/immature Scarlet or Summer Tanager.