Tantalizing Tanagers

Paradise Tanagers (Tangara chilensis), Lower Manu Road, Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge, Peru. May, 2004.

“To stand in bright morning sunshine before a tree laden with ripening berries is one of the great delights of bird-watching in tropical America . . . . nearly always, the tanager family provides the greatest number of species and individuals, and most of the colour.” These are the words of the great naturalist Alexander Skutch  (1904-2004), who spent well over half his long life studying birds in the forests of Costa Rica.

Certainly, when it comes to colour, the New World tanagers are difficult to beat. This is actually quite a hard family of birds to define, with about 250 species in the family Thraupidae. The great majority are resident in the tropics of South and Central America, but two or three species migrate to the USA and even Canada. In general body shape they are not dissimilar to sparrows, although some species have modified bills that allow them to exploit distinct feeding niches. In recent years, taxonomists have had a field day with the tanagers, lumping them with cardinals and the New World buntings (not related to African buntings), then splitting them apart again, only to re-shuffle two of the most beautiful tribes (the chlorophonias and euphonies) in among the buntings. Modern-day taxonomy of birds is so fluid, that I find it hard to take seriously.

At any rate, of the various tanagers, those belonging to the genus Tangara are undoubtedly the most spectacular. Even before you’ve laid eyes on them, their alluring names will captivate you: Saffron-crowned, Beryl-spangled, Opal-rumped, Flame-faced, Silver-throated and Brassy-breasted, to name just a few.

In the cloud forests of Peru – the moist east-facing slopes of the Andes – tanagers form a significant part of the mixed feeding flocks that sweep through the canopies and moss-clad thickets. Here, it’s possible to walk for a hour or so and see hardly a bird, then be inundated with a hundred-strong mob, of thirty or more species, feeding on bugs, caterpillars and berries. This can be an overwhelming experience, not knowing where to look, or which bird to follow with binoculars. Soon enough, the wave of birds will pass and you can then catch your breath to flip through the field guide and read your notes. If you’re lucky, you might have been able to identify half of the birds that passed within a few metres.

Heading south-east of Cusco, we crossed the high, barren altiplano before zig-zagging down the eastern slopes of the Andes in a series of treacherous hairpin bends. This is the fabled ‘Manu Road’, known to traveling birders all around the world. At around 2,950 metres above sea level, the trees are stunted and the air is sharp. Once over this chilly lip, the trees get larger and birds become more conspicuous. Grass-green Tanager, Hooded Mountain-Tanager and Capped Conebill were among the first members of the family we encountered, although we were somewhat distracted by Grey-breasted Mountain Toucans and Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, not to mention the many hummingbirds. The variety of birds along the Manu Road is truly remarkable, with most species operating within blurred altitudinal bands.

We’d stopped so often for birds (the whole point of being there), that it was already dark when we checked-in to the charming Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge at an elevation of around 1,400 metres. We were out before dawn the following day to watch the spell-binding birds (after which this lodge is named) displaying at their communal lek site, but having accomplished this, it was a simple matter of wandering around the little garden (just a clearing really) or drinking good coffee, with binoculars in hand, on the shady verandah overlooking the forest canopy.  It was from this vantage point that we saw our first Paradise Tanagers- lime-headed beauties gathering to preen and stretch on the leafless twigs of an emergent tree.

Red-necked Tanager (Tangara cyanocephala) and Green-headed Tanager (Tangara seledon), Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. July, 2007.

A few year later, we were among the throngs of tourists being shuffled up and down the impressive Corcovado Mountain above Rio de Janeiro – to gaze out at the ‘Sugarloaf Mountain’ (like Corcovado it is an enormous granite dome) looming over Guanabara Bay, and gawk at the giant statue of Jesus Christ. Here, in dense bushes alongside the well-trod pathways I happened upon Red-necked Tanager and Green-headed Tanager – two of the most striking members of the family, and common visitors to gardens in the outer suburbs of Rio.

Duncan Butchart Peru 2004 and Brazil 2007.

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