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Nature on Trail: Western Tanager, Western Anemone

Posted by Rachel Wendling at Aug 09, 2018 10:38 AM |

Washington's wild places are teeming with life. Learn a bit more about two common species, the Western Tanager and Western Anemone, and where you can find them.

Washington's wild places are teeming with life. Learn a bit more about two common species, the Western Tanager and Western Anemone, and where you can find them. By Tami Asars.

WESTERN TANAGER (Piranga ludoviciana)

Where to see them: Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir forests; common on both sides of the Cascade Crest from May to August. Look for tanagers on trails near Leavenworth, Mazama and Yakima/ Naches.

When you first see a male western tanager, you might stop dead in your tracks and double back for a second look at the brightly colored, breathtaking bird that drew your attention. With a flamered head, a bright yellow body and stark black-and-yellow wings, the adult male is one of the most brilliant migratory visitors to swing by the Pacific Northwest in the summertime. Interestingly, the coloration of his red head is from a pigment called rhodoxanthin, which is not naturally produced in his body but is found in the insects that he eats. His female counterpart is less flashy but still glamorous with her soft yellow head and body and subdued version of the male’s black-and-white wings.

Western Tanager_tamiasars.jpg

Slightly smaller than American robins, western tanagers come to the Northwest during the spring and summer to mate, which occasionally includes a courtship ritual where the male flashes his gorgeous plumage as he tumbles past a female. He establishes his territory in the tops of the conifers by singing a melodic song nonstop at his selected boundaries, in an attempt to let other males know he’s laid claim to the ladies in that part of the forest.

The female is the sole nest builder, creating a loose, flat, bowlshaped nest of twigs, bark and mosses in which she lays 3–5 eggs. Once the eggs are produced, both parents guard the clutch, with the male often feeding the female insects as she sits on her eggs.

Once the summer is over, western tanagers migrate south to warmer climates and the following summer, the pattern is repeated.


Where to see them: Subalpine and alpine meadows with open rocky fields, usually above 4,000 feet. Look for them on trails in Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park and anywhere with high, spacious meadows, such as Mount Adams Wilderness. Looking like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, the long, messyhaired seed pod of the western pasque flower is every bit as fascinating as its flower, and when you see it for the first time, you’ll want to whip out your camera.

Pasque Seedpod_tamiasars.jpg

In early spring and summer, just after the snow melts, small creamy white flowers with pale-yellow stamens pop up from the dense leaf clusters of this beautiful plant in the buttercup family. After blooming only a few days, the flower drops its leaves and enters a new phase where the plant looks like a sea urchin, producing soft, spiky, green balls where the flowers once were. Finally, the plant hits its final and most exciting phase, when a cream-colored seedpod with featherlike hair resembling that of a human emerges and gently sways in the wind until well into autumn, when weather eventually scatters the seeds.

Of all the plants in the Pacific Northwest, this one may have the most nicknames. Among them are old man of the mountain, mouse on a stick, mop top, tow-headed baby, fluff-puffs, and nature’s Q-Tip. Technically, the word “pasque” refers to Easter or Passover, and the flowering portion of this plant may have been named for its early blossoms and its white purity. Whatever you call it, you’re sure to enjoy being in its company.

This article originally appeared in the May+Jun 2018 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.