June 20, 2011

Gaudy Birds

By Dave Erler

Early this morning I was out birding. I was in no particular hurry to check off as many species of birds I could see and hear; it was just an easy walk to see what I could discover. And as is often the case that’s when I seem to see the best things. Today was exceptional as my walk took me to a spot overlooking a beaver pond where I was lucky enough to watch a mother wood duck with eight newly hatched ducklings. They were paddling around picking at the water’s surface for what I imagine were small insects. This continued for several minutes until the mother realized they were being watched and quickly guided her family across the pond.

Once the raft of young wood ducks disappeared into the reeds I focused my attention on listening. A few hundred feet behind me I could hear the flute-like song of the hermit thrush. Then, from across the beaver pond came the song often described as a robin with a sore throat, a scarlet tanager. Male scarlet tanagers are one of the most gaudily colored songbirds we find here in the summer. Despite their brilliant red body plumage accented by jet black wings they are not easily seen as they prefer to stay high up in the tree canopy. I focused my binoculars on the tree tops across the pond and there he was -- this flash of bright red contrasting with green foliage. Within a few short seconds after locating him he flew across to the side of the pond where I was. Almost immediately another male scarlet tanager broke into song a short distance from where the first one had landed. Within a second or two both males flew to a nearby dead branch in what clearly was a face off. Both sang again, followed by the first one chasing the second around and through the tree canopy. The first male promptly returned to the dead branch and sang, which I interpreted as having settled the dispute. This was followed next by a male Baltimore oriole breaking into song about ten feet to the tanager’s left. The gaudy flame orange and black male oriole was then attacked by a second equally flashy male oriole. The first oriole launched after the second and another tail chase began. I was unable to tell for sure which of the two orioles was victorious, but one of them came back and landed about six feet away on the same dead branch where the tanager was perched. The oriole sang once, the tanager sang, and then the oriole flew at the tanager driving him back across the pond.

All this action took place in less than a minute and clearly was an exhibition of territorial behavior. But as to why the tanager from across the pond wanted to claim twenty feet of shoreline from across the pond, I am still baffled. And did the dominant oriole really consider the tanager a threat to his territory?

Catching little serendipitous glimpses into the natural world is such a great experience. Not knowing what I might witness is what keeps me going back out. I don’t know that I’ll ever catch another clash between gaudy birds, but who knows?

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