Indigo bunting (Photo by Leanne M. Robicheau)
Indigo bunting (Photo by Leanne M. Robicheau)
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Whoppee! Late May bird watching can be such fun! For the most part, there’s a general predictability in when certain migrants will arrive. A few warblers, such as palm, pine, yellow-rump and black-and-white, often appear in early May, while the majority of flycatchers, swallows and other songbirds come a bit later. But “wild card” species are the frosting on the cake as random birds overshoot their northern destinations to delight our eyes.

This spring was a banner year for bunting and tanager sightings at local yards and feeders. Members of the cardinal family, these birds feature bright jewel-like plumages that speak of tropical regions. Let’s begin with the indigo bunting, a sparrow-size bird that nests in weedy fields and shrubby habitats of Eastern North America. Oddly enough, the cerulean-colored males’ feathers actually lack blue pigments. Their deep hues come instead from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light. This same phenomenon applies to atmospheric particles that account for the “blue” skies we see, as well. These buntings migrate at night, using stars for guidance.

On rare occasions another bunting, the painted bunting, visits New England from the Southern and South-Central U.S. With their blue, green, yellow and red coat of many colors, the males of this species are true stunners. Females and immatures are a distinctive bright green. Imagine the surprise of the Warren resident near South Pond who photographed a gorgeous male bunting just outside her front door! An accompanying female bunting was a double bonus. In 1841 John James Audubon reported that “thousands” of these colorful birds were trapped and shipped from New Orleans to Europe as cage birds. The French name for the painted bunting, nonpareil, means “without equal.”

Two species of tanagers can dazzle watchers in spring. For Mainers, the scarlet tanager is the more familiar, since it nests here in mature deciduous forests. At any distance, the male scarlet tanager’s blood-red torso and contrasting jet-black wings and tail are show-stoppers. These birds typically remain high in the treetops to nest, making them hard to spot. Sometimes the bird’s raspy robin-like song and “chick-burr” call notes are the only clues to its presence. Tanagers were especially abundant on Monhegan Island this spring as groups of hungry, tired individuals gathered low in search of food. In one amazing instance, five male tanagers shared the same copse of trees. By fall, these tanagers molt to a yellow-green color as birds leave to winter in northern South America.

I had mentioned springtime “overshoots.” With a nesting range extending into the Mid-Atlantic states, summer tanager sightings are increasingly reported during our Maine springs. Such sightings often involve immature or sub-adult birds with variable mixed patches of red and greenish-yellow feathering. The photo bird (an immature) was yet another special sighting for the South Pond area. As adults, these rosy-red tanagers are the only completely red birds in North America. Interestingly, the summer tanager is a bee and wasp specialist, catching them in flight and pounding the insects against a branch to kill them. Next the bird rubs the bee against a branch to remove the stinger before consuming it.

The pre-nesting and post-nesting seasons are probably the most opportune times to see unusual birds. As we mentioned, some birds overshoot their intended spring destinations. At the conclusion of summer nesting, adults and immature birds alike are free to wander before the onset of cold weather. In fall, we see additional movement of wanderers from Western regions of the country. And, of course, powerful weather systems can send birds our way at practically any time of year.