A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Western Tanager breeds in the forested parts of Sonoma County (and in suitable areas throughout most of the Western United States and Canada and then moves south for the winter, spending the colder months in coastal Southern California, southern Baja California, and central Mexico. In the Bay Area, tends to nest a higher elevations, avoiding the fog belt. Spring birds arrive in Sonoma County around the end of April. Most have left by late October, but some will still be moving through the area in early November, and a few birds overwinter here each year. Most commonly seen locally during autumn migration. Perhaps most common here in September through mid-October. Generally prefers wooded areas where it tends to stay high up in trees, but during migration may turn up just about anywhere, including the suburbs. May appear at feeders in the Winter.

Male Western Tanager in breeding plumage is striking and unmistakeable. Look for the bright red-orange head and canary yellow body with sharply contrasting black wings and tail. Has two broad wing bars. The upper wing bar is yellow or yellowish, so it may appear as a deep notch in the top of the wing rather than as a wing bar. Western Tanager is the only North American tanager with distinct wing bars (setting aside Flame-colored Tanager (Piranga bidentata), a rare stray from Mexico occasionally seen in extreme southern Arizona). Tips of tertials also white, which creates a somewhat striped look in that portion of the wing. Broad bill suggests a seed eater, but Western Tanagers eat seeds, insects, and fruit, the latter mostly during autumn migration.

Females (photo above) are mostly a yellowish olive, but note the grey-olive back that separates the yellow areas of the head from the yellowish lower back and rump. Some females are considerably less yellow and more drab than others, and these paler birds tend to have a greyish-white belly, but greyish back should still separate the yellower tones of the head from the yellowish lower back and rump. Wings and tail are dark but not black as in the male. The wing bars and white on the tertials are similar to the male pattern, however. Males in non-breeding plumage lose most of the red on the head, usually retaining just a wash on the forehead, but extent of red is variable (photo below). Males are unlikely to be confused with any other bird, but females can look a lot like female orioles. The bill distinguishes the two easily, however. A female oriole will have a longer, darker, sharper, usually slightly down-curved bill (photo below).

Vocalization is often described as sounding like a hoarse American Robin (Turdus migratorius), but to my ear, sounds more like a hoarse Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus). See links below to compare.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 111

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 433

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 154

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 400

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 490

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 580-581

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 628

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 322

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 411

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 328

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, p. 91

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 260-261

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 70

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 282

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 324

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 314

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 393

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 647

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 413

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Western Tanager

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Black-headed Grosbeak

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--American Robin



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Western Tanager (female), Dunbar Road, Kenwood, October 27, 2012

Western Tanager (male, non-breeding plumage), Brush Creek Trail, Santa Rosa, October 16, 2012

For comparison: Female oriole--Note long, dark, slender, down-curved bill

Western Tanager

Piranga ludoviciana

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 21, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County