A SPLASH OF COLOR

For a brief time, tanagers descend on county
By: 
Nate Howard —
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
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Pictured above is a male Western tanager and below, a female, photographed Saturday by Lori Wilkinson in Gardiner. 

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Flashes of yellow and orange in trees and backyards across Park County can mean only one thing: the Western tanagers are back in their annual migration.

They usually spend their time in the area’s mountains, but recently snow has brought the tropical birds — which winter over in Central and South America — to lower elevations, bird experts say.

Neil Travis, who is also a licensed federal bird bander, said the tanagers moved down to avoid the cold and snow, seeking insects in the valleys.

They’re here to stay for the summer, Travis said, mostly nesting in the mountains, with maybe a few that will nest in the valleys depending on the weather.

Paradise Valley resident Kevin Marks said, “They are hungry,” commenting on the amount of suet the birds have been eating from his 19 bird feeders.

“It’s a show, but they’re not real sharing,” he quipped.

To accommodate their selfish feeding habit, he cuts high-energy suet into chunks and spreads it around his deck, Marks said.

Marks said he saw the birds a few weeks ago, then they disappeared and now they are back again.

Last week, Travis tagged a few tanagers along the Yellowstone River.

If a banded tanager is found, data on the bird is collected, including life longevity, population dynamics, habitat use and migration trends.

Travis’ banding service is volunteer work in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He gathers data to show the importance of riparian habitat along the Yellowstone River for the bird.

The Western tanagers build their nests mostly in mature conifer forests and a few will build nests in deciduous trees, including aspen, birch or willow.

Marks said it’s been five years since he’s seen the birds in these numbers.

“Those birds can disappear,” he said. “You wake up one morning and they’re gone.”

But for now, “It’s nice to get up in the morning and see them,” said Marks.

Travis says this time of year brings other colorful birds including orioles, gold finches and cedar waxwings and a number of smaller birds.