Have You Seen These Lately? (2024)

There are two birds in particular that are so striking, so tropical-looking, that most people think they’re rare here in Maine.

But they aren’t.

In fact they’re quite widespread and abundant. Aside from the unusual instances when they come to backyard bird feeders, finding them requires some knowledge of where to look for them and, especially, what they sound like.

We’re talking about the indigo bunting and the scarlet tanager.

The male indigo bunting, if seen in good light, is entirely bright blue—an unusual deep and rich blue at that. In poor light, it transforms into what appears to be an entirely black bird. In spring, when one or two will come to the occasional feeder for a few days, such a visit will feel like a very special event, all the more so when you see them in the good light. That sense of specialness is in part because many people don’t see them again until the next spring, unless they’ve specifically gone looking for them.

The truth is, though, indigo buntings are relatively common across the southern half of the state.

Once you learn their distinctive song, which sounds a bit like a goldfinch that feels the need to repeat each warbling phrase it sings. This results in a song in which every short phrase comes in twos. Whenever you find yourself in spots with lots of shrubby bushes (for example, along field edges or under powerlines), listen carefully for that song. We have been finding them in a number of locations in the area over the last few weeks.

Male indigo buntings are typically exuberant singers and will sing even when other birds are silenced by the heat and lateness of the season. Often, they sit at the top of a tree, which make them easy to key in on and observe. Remember, though, that in the wrong light, that indigo-colored little bird will look remarkably dark.

The first time a beginning birder sees a male scarlet tanager, they typically are at a loss for words. The glowing red body contrasting with the black wings and tail make them look exotic and tropical. The truth is, our scarlet tanager does spend much of its year in the tropics. In the winter, scarlet tanagers are found in Andean forests of northern South America. They arrive here in Maine in May. Like the indigo bunting, they very occasionally come in to feed on suet, jelly, or orange slices at feeders, especially under cold and rainy conditions.

After they arrive, they almost seem to disappear. That’s because they nest in the canopy of oak, maple, and beech forest landscapes that are widespread across much of the state. While hard to see, the male’s burry song, said to sound “like a robin with a sore throat,” is very distinctive and can be heard from a surprising distance. After you learn the song, you’ll be surprised at how widespread scarlet tanagers are here in Maine if you are in the right habitat.

Sadly, scarlet tanagers have been decreasing steadily across the state and across much of their range in recent years. Still, there are many around if you listen and look for them. We’ve been bumping into them in a number of places over the last few weeks, usually when we’re looking for other birds.

As always, when you do see or hear one of these beauties, consider adding your sighting to the eBird database to track the changes in bird populations (www.ebird.org).

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon.Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leadingbirdexperts and conservation biologists. He is a coauthor of the seminal Birds of Mainebook and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years.Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular books,“Maine’s FavoriteBirds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).

Have You Seen These Lately? (2024)
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