A bright red summer tanager made San Francisco's Glen Park Canyon home in January 2019.
© SF Rec And Park
A bright red summer tanager made San Francisco's Glen Park Canyon home in January 2019.
A brilliant red bird — the sort you'd expect to find in a tropical forest — has made an unusual appearance in San Francisco's Glen Canyon Park.

The summer tanager is what birders call a "vagrant," a bird that ends up far from its usual migratory destination.

The medium-size song bird typically breeds in southern portions of the United States and migrates to Central America and northern South America for the winter. Dylan Hayes, who has worked in the canyon as a San Francisco Recreation and Parks naturalist for more than 15 years, said he has never seen this species in the city.

Summer Tanager Range Map

Summer Tanager Range Map
"What happens is these birds can get lost during migration due to regional storms or weather patterns," said Hayes, who works for Rec and Park's Natural Resource Division. "Often a bird will get caught up in that and get off course and they have to land to rest. Migration is a trying and hard process. To get to the right place at the right time of year, you don't always hit your mark."

The Glen Park bird is actually one of three summer tanagers spotted in the Bay Area this winter. Volunteers with the Golden Gate Audubon Society have also observed a bird in Golden Gate Park and another in Alameda.

"Usually once every couple years a tanager sticks around in the Bay Area," David Assmann, a volunteer with Audubon said. "This year there's more than usual. We don't know why that is. The one in Glen Canyon is unusual because it's a full adult male and a very bright bird. It's more common to see a young bird."

Hayes first saw the bird in Glen Park on Wednesday when working with a group in the park on a restoration project.

"All the birders were lined up with their cameras," he said. "Any time you see a very serious group of people lined up with expensive cameras pointed in the same direction, you know there's an important bird."

While Hayes is concerned about the bird finding its way back home, he said it's not entirely out of the ordinary for birds to get lost.

The summer tanager prefers what's known as a riparian environment with a creek or stream, and in the canyon, Islais Creek offers this. Hayes has worked the Friends of Glen Canyon Park for years to restore the canyon's riparian habitat, removing the non-native Eucalyptus trees that suck up water and planting native species such as alder and buckeye trees.

"It's always neat to see vagrants move through and recognize productive habitat and shelter," he said. "That's a signal it's a wonderful habitat and a great place to be."

Hayes says the bird will probably stick around for the winter and head south when temperatures warm.

Glen Canyon Park stretches across 70 acres of wilderness and is home to hundreds of birds. Year-round winged residents include great-horned owls, red-tailed hawks and a menagerie of songbirds such as white crown sparrows and nuthatches. There's also an array of birds that winter in the canyon like Wilson's warblers and Townsend's warblers.

"We're lucky to have this in such an intense urban area," Hayes said.