The colors of the day: scarlet and indigo

What a thrill! I finally got a good look at scarlet tanagers today out at the Mercer County Pole Farm. I had only seen a scarlet tanager once before, during a previous summer when on a bicycle I flushed one from the trail-side brush.

That was only a glimpse, but the sighting was a no-doubter: blazing red body and coal black wings speeding away in a flash.

This morning I played a hunch and varied one of my standard routes. Instead of taking a left onto two wooden bridges that bring me to a meadow with nice light, I turned right and deeper into the woods. Soon I heard what I thought was a robin, but the call was shorter than usual. To check myself, I took out my iPhone and opened the Sound ID section of the Merlin app. That short call came again, and the app gave its deduction: scarlet tanager.

I stopped and looked around, then walked forward, stopped and looked some more, walked forward and — there! To my left, I saw two tanagers flitting from tree to tree. By the time I set my camera on the ground and brought my binoculars around, they’d flown off. I turned to my right and just ahead, about 15 feet up in a tree branch, I spotted one. I managed to get a couple of handheld shots off before getting my monopod extended to the ground.

A scarlet tanager perches on a branch at the Mercer County Parks Pole Farm on Aug. 1, 2021.

The bird flew behind me, and I spun around to get a quick glance as he stopped on a tree for a few seconds before flying off.

That encounter likely lasted no more than 90 seconds, but it has stuck with me the whole day.

Earlier in the morning, I had emerged into the fields near the Pole Farm’s south observation tower and heard a fair amount of bird chatter. Out came the Merlin app, and it repeatedly heard an indigo bunting in the area. This was no surprise as other birders have reported them regularly in recent days and I’d seen one myself on a previous trip.

I could hear the bird in the tall grasses in front of me, and I waited a good five minutes to see if it would emerge. Impatient, I wandered over the observation deck and on the first level waited some more. After another five minutes of peering into the field, I raised my gaze. There, atop a bird box a couple of hundred yards away, was the bunting. He may have been there the whole time.

The box was out of camera range, but I got a fair glimpse of him with binoculars before he flew down into the grasses.

The scarlet tanager and indigo bunting are uncommon sights in these parts, and it’s gratifying to know that I beat the odds in finding them. Merlin keeps taunting me with blue grosbeak and red-eyed vireo readings off the Sound ID. I have yet to catch a glimpse, but I shall persevere!

An indigo bunting sings from atop a tree at the Mercer County Park Pole Farm on July 26, 2021.

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

2 thoughts on “The colors of the day: scarlet and indigo

  1. Great sightings, Dan! I love how you IDed the birds first by sound and then spotted them. You’ve inspired me to take out Merlin more to help me sight or ID nearby birds. Last night there was is kind of prolonged, plaintive, high-pitched calling going on outside my house. I thought it was a red-shouldered hawk, maybe a young one, but I didn’t know. Merlin would have known! BTW, your website looks great! More expansive since I last visited. I look forward to more posts!


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