Figure 292 (right). Note the blackish bill, gray cheek, and brick-red plumage of this adult male Hepatic Tanager photographed on 1 December 2001 in Los Angeles, Los Angeles County. Although spring, fall, and winter vagrants are exceedingly scarce in California, the species breeds regularly enough in the southern mountains that the CBRC has not reviewed its records since 1972 (Larry Sansone).






Hepatic Tanager

HEPATIC TANAGER Piranga flava (Vieillot, 1822)

Accepted: 7 (100%)

Treated in Appendix H: no

Not accepted: 0

CBRC review: 1972 records1

Not submitted/reviewed: NA

Large color image: see Figure

The northern hepatica group of subspecies of the Hepatic Tanager breeds across much of Arizona and New Mexico and in small parts of southeastern Colorado, western Texas, and southeastern California. The breeding range, most of which is occupied the year round, extends south along both slopes of Middle America to northern Nicaragua. The northernmost breeders, and some that breed in the higher mountains of northern Mexico, are migratory. The hepatica group’s regular winter range extends north to southeastern Arizona. Most records of vagrants come from the Southwest and northern Baja California, but records also extend north and east to northern Wyoming, southwestern Kansas (NAB 60:400), northeastern Nebraska (NAB 53:298), Illinois, and southwestern Louisiana. The resident lutea and flava groups of Central and South America may represent separate species.

A first-fall male Hepatic Tanager collected on 8 November 1959 several miles southeast of Shandon in San Luis Obispo County (Miller and McMillan 1964, MVZ 142745) was California’s first (contra Unitt 2004). The Committee reviewed records of this species for only one year before it was learned that these birds breed regularly, albeit scarcely, in mountains of San Bernardino County. The first CBRC-endorsed records come from Arrastre Creek in the San Bernardino Mts., where monitoring of three males and three females during spring 1972 led to the discovery of an active nest in a large Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa) on 18 June (Johnson and Garrett 1974). Nesting has since been documented in the Kingston Range, and territorial males have been recorded on Clark Mtn. and in the New York Mts.

Hepatic Tanagers are very rare fall visitors to California, occurring mainly on the southern coastal slope from late September through October. San Diego County’s total of 14 fall vagrants (Unitt 2004) exceeds the combined total for all other California counties at this season. Pt. Loma accounts for 12 of the 14, including an early transient recorded 10–18 September 1988 (Unitt 2004). An even earlier bird was present 5–13 September 1973 at Starr Ranch in southern Orange County (Hamilton and Willick 1996). The state’s northernmost record is of a fall vagrant found on 11 November 1979 on Southeast Farallon Island (Richardson et al. 2003). Several fall birds have also been reported in the southeastern deserts.

One or two Hepatic Tanagers are recorded on California’s southern coastal slope during an average winter. Some birds return to the same haunts year after year, with the longevity record going to a male that returned to Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara County, for 12 consecutive winters between 1982/1983 and 1993/1994 (Lehman 1994). This individual also set the latest date for a bird known to have wintered: 9 April 1985 (Lehman 1994). A bird at Pt. Loma on 9 April 1966 may also have wintered locally (Unitt 2004). A northerly male was recorded at Ft. Hunter Liggett, Monterey County, on 30 January 1966 (Roberson 2002). Records of birds definitely or probably wintering in the interior are few, especially since the mid 1980s (from Garrett and Dunn 1981, unless otherwise specified): Imperial Dam, Imperial County, 19 December 1973 and 28 December 1974 (AB 29:744); Agua Caliente, San Diego County, 9 March 1974; Parker Dam, San Bernardino County, 27 March–12 April 1975; Blythe, Riverside County, 2–5 April 1979; and Banning, Riverside County, 31 December 1983–1 February 1984 (AB 38:359).

Hepatic Tanagers are least numerous as spring vagrants. Garrett and Dunn (1981) published six such records from the state’s interior: five from the Mojave Desert during the period of 15 May–8 June, plus one at Morongo Valley, San Bernardino County, 19 April 1977. We are unaware of any subsequent spring records away from the coast, where only three such birds have been found: 22 May 1977 on Southeast Farallon Island (Richardson et al. 2003); 28–31 May 1991 in Santa Ana, Orange County (Hamilton and Willick 1996); and 11 June 2002 at Pt. Loma (Unitt 2004).

Some older published reports may have involved misidentified Summer Tanagers. The 16 July 1973 report of a bird near the coast in Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara County (AB 27:920, Garrett and Dunn 1981, Webster et al. 1980), was excluded by Lehman (1994). Given that the CBRC reviewed only two records of the Hepatic Tanager, researchers lack a database of vetted records that might help in determining whether the drop-off in California reports since the 1970s reflects decreasing source populations, increased awareness of the field marks separating Hepatic and Summer Tanagers, or some combination of the two.

1On the review list 1972–1973