Photo courtesy Charles Martinez
This week’s Bird of the Week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the blue-gray gnatcatcher.
A bird like this one — that is not much larger than a hummingbird and is often buried in dense foliage — can require some patience to spot. If it weren’t for the distinctive soft, high-pitched calls that these birds make to stay in contact, and which announce their presence, they could easily be overlooked.
The blue-gray gnatcatcher is referred to as “the little mockingbird” for its grayish hue, long tail and habit of incorporating bits of the songs of other birds into its own. Males sing a simple song at daybreak early in the nesting season, and a more complex one from early morning to midday.
These small birds with blue-gray upperparts and bold white eye-rings seem to be in constant motion. They often flick their long, black tails with white outer feathers in a side to side motion as they forage. The black eyebrows of the male meet over the top of his bill, conferring a stern look. Females have softer coloring.
Despite the promise of its name, gnats do not make up a significant part of this bird’s diet, and a variety of small insects, spiders and other invertebrates are consumed. The gnatcatcher is a busy and acrobatic forager as it searches for prey it gleans from branches and foliage or darts out to capture in the air. It is thought that tail flicking by the bird startles insects into motion and flushes them into the open.
The breeding range of the blue-gray gnatcatcher covers the southern half of the United States, with the exception of the Great Plains states, which do not have good nesting habitat. With increasing summer temperatures, their nesting range is shifting north, especially in the east. Habitat requirements vary with region, and in the southwest, these birds generally breed in oak and pinyon-juniper woodlands or in willow and cottonwood riparian areas.
Like other birds that rely on insects for food, these retreat south for the winter. They begin to depart from our area in August, and by mid-October all of them have moved on.
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