A rare sighting of a Summer Tanager in San Francisco

We are reprinting a post from the Save Sutro Forest blog about a rare sighting of a Summer Tanager in San Francisco.  With permission and with minimal edits necessary to change the source of the pictures of  tanagers, we share this story with our readers.  Please visit the story on the Save Sutro Forest website to see photos of the actual female bird that was seen in San Francisco.


One of the more interesting groups to watch, if you like birds, is the Yahoo group SF Birds. (Anyone can read it, but you must join to post in it. [ETA: It’s apparently been changed to a members-only group; only members can read it.]) It has over 1,000 members at this writing, but a smaller dedicated group of local birders use it to communicate the whereabouts of rare-in-San Francisco species. Often, someone follows up with links to beautiful photographs. That’s where we found the story of the Summer Tanager.

Male Summer Tanager. Wikipedia Commons


This is a small songbird that’s a rare winter visitor to San Francisco. The males are a bright red color, the females and immature males are yellow. They feed on insects (bees, wasps and so on) and berries. Recently, birder Alan Hopkins reported seeing a female Summer Tanager in Golden Gate Park: “… you will find English Ivy growing up some trees. The tanager was catching bees that are feeding on the ivy.

Of course, other birders followed up. Steven Tucker wrote: “…the Summer Tanager was where Alan described it. There are 2 huge columns of ivy adjacent to one another; the tanager was often in the right-hand clump or in the Eucalyptus trees around it.

Then birder Mark Rauzon posted some wonderful pictures of this little bird in his Zenfolio portfolio. “I found it by it’s ‘churrip’ call at 1:30pm, Monday in the ivy covered Eucalyptus … It was bee-eating and occasionally dropping down to eat blackberries, where I had this face to face encounter.” (The pictures here are reproduced with his permission. They’re copyright. Anyone who wants to use them should check with him at mjrauz@aol.com )


It’ll come as no surprise to birders that non-native plants provide habitat. After all, many of the posts in the SF Bird group describe birds in flowering eucalyptus trees, either for the nectar or the insects attracted to the nectar. (We hope that any birders who still believe eucalyptus trees suffocate birds will check this article, Another Eucalyptus Myth: Bird Death) They mention birds in the blackberry bushes, which provide not only food by way of berries and insects, but excellent cover. Like the notes above, they mention birds hiding in ivy.

In our article Interwoven and Integrated: Non-native and Native Species in Life’s Web, we described how native species and non-native species are part of the same functional habitat. This is another example.

  • The eucalyptus (non-native) provides support for the ivy (non-native)
  • which attracts insects (both native and non-native),
  • which become food for the Summer Tanager and other birds (mostly native).

The blackberry bushes work in much the same way; they attract insects, they provide berries, and they provide hiding places. So does eucalyptus – it flowers through the year, and particularly in winter, provides sustenance to birds and insects. It also provides nesting spots and cover.

Pointing this up was the most recent post [ETA:  No longer available to non-members] on the Summer Tanager, from Richard Bradus: “…an immature Red-tailed Hawk alighted, drawing an even dozen Ravens in pursuit. As they rose and flew off the bushes came alive, and out popped the female Summer Tanager. It made a few sorties from the ivy then, after devouring a particularly fat insect (bee?), it retreated to cover.


Million Trees Webmaster:  People who like birds pay attention to where they are and know they make good use of non-native plants and trees in San Francisco.  We had two old English holly trees in our yard in San Francisco which were probably planted around the same time our house was built in 1908.  They were visited every year by a flock of Cedar Waxwings, one of the most beautiful birds I have seen in the United States.  Their arrival each year was announced by the high-pitched, thin whistle of their call.  Then we could watch them with binoculars from our second story as they feasted on the berries of the holly trees.  It was an annual treat both for us and for the Waxwings as they passed through San Francisco.  Would they find enough to eat if there were no non-native trees and plants?  I don’t know, but I DO wonder.

Cedar Waxwing. Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “A rare sighting of a Summer Tanager in San Francisco”

  1. love the Cedar Waxwing in the Holly, birds love seeds and berries no matter where they come from. Many people here in the UK feed the (native) birds peanuts; very native. The same people tell me to stop growing Eucalyptus. Bird lovers know that birds do not have a map with borders. I think i have said it before but i will say it again, nature does not discriminate, discrimination is a human error.
    Webmaster: And we will KEEP ON SAYING IT, until more people listen to us!! Meanwhile, the Cedar Waxwings will “carry” the seeds of my holly tree to another location on their migratory route and the holly tree will enjoy a new life in a new location. The cycle of life will continue whether people listen to us or not. That is some consolation.

  2. I have been taking daily pictures of a Summer Tanager in our community garden in the sunset of San Francisco. Yesterday I watched it fly from a non-native apple tree to the ground where a yellow jacket nest was, pick out a fat yellow jacket and fly to a non-native elderberry bush to eat it and then back again to the ground and then over to the apple tree. What a wonderful sight. Please save our trees in San Francisco whether they are native or not. They are all very beneficial to the animals. As mentioned in the article above blackberries are an incredible source of food and cover. So are eucalyptus, so are Monterey pines, so are Monterey Cypress. All of these are quote+un quote “non-native”- all have a place in San Francisco.

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