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Canyon Notes

Rare Tanager Breeds in Madera Canyon - 2005

By Karen McBride

A blessed event has just occurred in Madera Canyon that is worthy of headlines throughout North America, and is bringing many birders to our area.  Once again, our unique canyon has lured in a prize bird, one that normally lives from Sonora, Mexico, south to western Panama.  It is so rare here that it does not appear in many older field guides to the birds of North America, and only within the last few years has it become a regular visitor to Madera Canyon, and has actually nested here a couple of times. 

In this year’s nest, two eggs have just hatched and both parents are feeding the nestlings.  If you park at the Amphitheater Parking Lot (be sure to pay your fee or place your Golden Age Pass on the dashboard), and walk up the road to the Madera Kubo Cabins, you will see a huge sycamore on the right side of the road just across from Kubo’s feeders and gift shop.  The nest is located in the large oak tree just behind the sycamore, about 20 feet off the ground, and just over the driveway that goes down toward the creek cabins.  If you go in the morning, you are sure to have other birders there to help point out the birds.  Please stay as far away as possible from the nest, and keep an eye on the traffic. The male is truly breathtaking, but is definitely not worth an accident!

And speaking of that male....WOW!  He lives up to his name: FLAME-COLORED TANAGER.  For once I agree with the naming of a bird.  There is no doubt about this male.  His whole head and underparts are fiery orange, and there is a dusky mask through and behind the eye.  His back is streaked with black; wings and tail are blackish, edged with orange, and there are two broad white wing-bars and bold white spots on the wings.  The bill is dark gray in both male and female, but the female is mostly yellow with olive-colored upperparts and a back that is streaked with brown.

They sound very much like Western Tanagers, though perhaps a little louder and burrier.  The books describe the song as “churee chiree ch-ree chiwee” but in my mind, the cadence sounds like “ribbit, ribbit, ribbit, ribbit.”  There is a rapid call note almost exactly like a Western Tanager’s “ch-duck.”  The male calls often from the top of the sycamore in the mornings, when he’s not busy feeding his offspring.

Both birds seem to be very attentive parents, and as long as we observers aren’t too close, they come down regularly with food.  I’ve seen them taking pieces of orange to the nestlings, and hunting low to the ground for insects.  Because not a lot is known about the Flame-colored’s nesting habits, Tucson Audubon has a group of observers who regularly make visits to the nest site and report their findings back to a coordinator.  There is much to be learned about this rare and attractive visitor, such as: how long does it take for the nestlings to fledge; how long are they fed by the parents; when do they become independent; what is their favorite food; when do they leave in the fall?  If you have observations to report, you can e-mail them to Once the young birds have fledged, they will be much harder to locate, so now is the time to see them.  Please be respectful and quiet and allow the parents to do their very important work.  What a rare treat they are!

Photo by Al Tozier


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