Friday, July 29, 2011

July 29: Scarlet Tanager

A friend has wanted to see a scarlet tanager for a long time, so this morning we embarked on a tanager quest. I knew there was at least one hanging out on the Ducktrap River Preserve this spring, so I suggested we go back there, though I had no idea if he'd still be hanging around singing. As it turned out, I was surprised by how many birds were still singing. We heard at least half a dozen Blackburnian warblers squeaking way above our heads in the old hemlocks. A family of four white-breasted nuthatches flew to a nearby tree trunk and foraged, the young pausing now and then to beg, the adults still giving in to the impulse to feed them. A hermit thrush's flute song rose from within a stand of pines, and goldfinches twittered overhead.

As we paused among the shade of the hemlocks on a ridge above the river, trying to actually see one of the Blackburnians, my ears picked up on a distant, raspy warble. A tanager! It sounded like he was on the other side of the river, in dense woods, but as we listened, he seemed to come a bit closer. We decided to head down the slope to the river in hopes of catching a glimpse of this brilliant red bird.

The river was beautiful in the morning sun, its mossy banks a bright, verdant green, the water low in this dry season and tea-colored due to tannins from the surrounding hemlocks. Water bugs skipped around on its surface, while tiny fish--were they salmon parr?--darted in shaded shallows. We sat on a big rock and listened. Tantalizingly close, the tanager sang over and over. Another tanager farther up river answered him. They sang back and forth for a while, the sound shifting as they flew to different perches. But we never saw either one.

No matter. My friend and I agreed it was time well spent in the company of each other, the river, and the birds singing around us. And on our hike out, an ovenbird--a notoriously hard-to-see warbler--popped up and gave us a quick glimpse. You don't always find what you go looking for, but sometimes what you do discover is just as meaningful.

She survived cancer.
Tanager's riverside song
seems blessing enough.

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