Flame-colored Tanager: The Rarest Bird Wisconsin has Ever Seen?

In the last few days of April, one of the rarest birds to ever be found in Wisconsin turned up on an eBird checklist. Originally believed to be a female Western Tanager, the bird turned out to be a female Flame-colored Tanager. As soon as word spread that this bird had been seen in the Milwaukee area, local birders quickly flocked to Sheridan Park along Lake Michigan to relocate it. The day after it was originally found, over 100 eBird checklists including the tanager were posted, and the flow of birders didn’t end there with more and more tanager hopefuls coming from far and wide in hopes of catching a glimpse of this rare visitor.

Why is the Tanager so Rare?

What is it about the Flame-colored Tanager that’s so rare? For starters, the natural range of this species is Central America and Mexico. Furthermore, the only two states in the U.S. to have a report of a Flame-colored Tanager in the last 100 years (at least according to eBird) are Arizona and Texas. So what is this bird doing so far from its normal range? Maybe its internal navigation system is a little out of whack, or maybe a weather pattern pushed it off course, but no matter the reason, this bird isn’t even sort of close to where it belongs.

Range map of Flame-colored Tanagers based on eBird sightings (Map from eBird.org)
The Thrill of the Chase

On the fourth day that the tanager was being seen, I made the trip to Sheridan Park and got a first hand look at the wildness a bird like this can bring.

I spent most of the day walking up and down the beach exchanging forlorn head shakes with other birders passing by. The gloomy weather matched the gloomy attitude of the group of searchers as there was no sign of the tanager since much earlier in teh morning. Had it moved on? Nobody knew for sure, but many of us were hopeful that it was still around.

Flame-colored Tanager in Milwaukee area, Wisconsin

I took a break and went to get food, but when I came back I saw birders starting to gather near the edge of the ravine on the north side of the park. I literally ran over to the group not wanting to miss whatever it was they were looking at. When my feet finally stopped moving and I found myself looking over the edge of the cliff, another birder who had come from Illinois to see the tanager told me they had just seen it in some of the brush halfway down the ravine. After a few minutes, the bird that I had searched for all day made an appearance and I got my extremely unlikely lifer Flame-colored Tanager in Milwaukee Wisconsin.

The group of birders grew to about 15 or 20 (nothing compared the 75 or so present the second day the tanager was seen) and consisted of people from many neighboring states, some of which had driven quite a ways just to see this bird. Everyone who had already seen the tanager was merry while those newly arriving were anxious and tense. We continued helping people get eyes on the bird and pointing new arrivals in the right direction. After hanging around for a half hour or so I called it a day and headed out.

View from the bluff where the tanager was viewed from
Final Thoughts

I have certainly been a part of many rare bird finds over the years both in the state and out of the state. Some of the wildest include a White-winged Tern in Wisconsin, and a Tundra Bean Goose in Iowa. This particular bird however, has gotten the birding community in the Midwest more hyped than I’ve seen it in a long time.

In terms of state rarity, the Flame-colored Tanager is certainly among the top rarest, if not the rarest bird Wisconsin has ever played host to. Based on what I have heard, the first day it was chase-able was absolutely insane, and even on the fourth day there was still a high number of birders coming to try and catch a glimpse at it.

Flame-colored Tanager

What will become of the Milwaukee Flame-colored Tanager? It’s hard to say, for the time being, it has plenty of gnats to eat and seems to be in great help. I suppose it depends on how it ended up here in the first place. If illness or weakness contributed to its unlikely journey to Wisconsin then the outcome will probably be on the grim side. However, its my hope that this bird will eventually meander its way back to Mexico and live out the rest of its life along with other members of its own species.

Either way, one thing is for sure: As long as the Flame-colored Tanager continues to be reported along the Lake Michigan coastline, birders from all over the country will continue coming to try and see it. Congratulations to all those who have already spotted this mega rarity, and good luck to those still searching.

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