Was it a vermilion flycatcher or a scarlet tanager?

Was it a vermilion flycatcher or a scarlet tanager?

On June 22 a report of a possible vermilion flycatcher was called in to the birding hotline here in the Goshen, Indiana area. Marcus Miller asked me to go with him to check it out. The location was a few miles north and east of Middlebury. It turned out I had been to the farm earlier this spring to look for a blue grosbeak that had been coming to their feeders. Marcus knew the family as well.

We were informed the blue grosbeak was still in the area. In fact there most likely was a nest because both a male and a female were being seen regularly.

That morning they had been watching the grosbeaks when they saw a red and black bird high in a tall, dead tree. The bird looked small. Because they are just getting started with birding, the next thing was to look in the field guide. What they found was a vermilion flycatcher. It looked just like what they had seen, even though the bird was at the top of a tall tree and hard to see details. They also realized a vermilion flycatcher was not supposed to be in Indiana.

Marcus, his son Timothy and I followed their directions to the tree where they had seen the bird. We also were interested in finding the blue grosbeaks, although it was late evening, not the best time to find birds. We also soon discovered there were lots of mosquitoes to fend off.

Finding the tall, dead tree was easy. The first bird we saw was a great crested flycatcher, perched high in the tree. About that time Timothy noticed a nest in a large branch that reached over the gravel county road. There were young birds in the nest, and the nest was good-sized.

A minute later Marcus saw a red and black bird land high in the tree. Although it wasn’t a close view, the bird was clearly a brilliant male scarlet tanager. At that point we began to wonder if the nest belonged to the tanager, and the bird was waiting for us to move before bringing food to the young birds.

It was easy to see why new birders could mistake the tanager for a vermilion flycatcher. Additionally they were looking at the Crossley Guide, which shows the vermilion flycatcher in an open tree, just like we were observing, as opposed to the forest setting, where you would expect a scarlet tanager. I should say the huge, dead tree was close to the woods, where a scarlet tanager would be expected.

At home I looked up the vermilion flycatcher records for Ohio and Indiana. There have been a number of sightings over the years, as this southwest species seems to be prone to wandering. Local birders in both states have had several opportunities to see this beautiful flycatcher, although in most cases the birds have not stayed around for more than a day or two.

Vermilion flycatchers have been seen in most states across the Midwest, into the east, and as far north as North Dakota and west to Washington and British Colombia.

Vermilion flycatchers nest in the southwestern states and winter south into Mexico and as far south as Nicaragua. They are absent in Costa Rica and Panama, but there is a large population in South America, isolated from the northern population.

Good birding!

Email Bruce Glick at bglick2@gmail.com or call 330-317-7798.

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