Nifty gnatcatchers found in abundance

By | Published Thursday, June 24, 2010

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I’ve been out in the field in southwestern Oklahoma and north-central Texas recently working on my titmouse study that I have written about in the past. While I was out, I saw many of my titmice, and many other birds and creatures too, from butterflies to water snakes to dragonflies. One of the most common and amusing birds that I encountered was the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. We have them here in Wise County in great abundance and they also occur in both the eastern and western United States, mostly in more southern regions.

To begin, gnatcatchers are tiny. Their shape reminds me of a miniature mockingbird because of their long, expressive tail that is often raised, flicked and twitched with their mood. They have a slender pointed beak for eating tiny insects picked off leaves and branches and caught in mid-air. Common foods consumed include flies, caterpillars, small wasps, spiders, leafhoppers, treehoppers, and plant bugs. Gnats are a type of small fly, so it’s quite likely that your average gnatcatcher eats gnats.

Males and females are similarly plumaged with soft blue-gray on the wings, back, tail, and head. The breast and belly are paler, almost white. The tail has white edges that show in flight or when the tail is twitched open (which is fairly often). Males differ in a black eyebrow that extends from the base of the beak to just behind the eye. It adds a peeved expression to the male’s face.

Gnatcatchers sound constantly annoyed, too. They make frequent buzzing and twittering noises, even while building the nest. In fact, I find gnatcatcher nests very easy to find despite their excellent camouflage because the pair is always talking as they bring bits of lichen and fluff back to the nest. The nest itself looks like an over-sized hummingbird nest, blending into the lichen on the tree branch.

According to Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman, gnatcatchers lay 3-6 eggs that are incubated by the pair for 11-15 days. The male brings food at first while the female tends the young, but as the kids grow older both parents make trips for food. They fledge at about 10-15 days. The parents can raise one or two broods per year.

Like many other small birds such as chickadees and titmice, gnatcatchers are quick to scold perceived threats. Usually one sees jays and crows mobbing hawks and owls, or perhaps a flock of cardinals, sparrows, chickadees, and titmice scolding an owl. One day I saw a shrike (about the size of a mockingbird) sitting on a power line being harassed by a gnatcatcher and a hummingbird. It was hilarious and instructive to see the same behavior in miniature with a set of smaller birds.

Gnatcatchers are also rather bold if you are sitting still in an area where they are foraging and interacting. I was sitting down to watch some other birds, hidden in a patch of small oaks, when two fighting male gnatcatchers proceeded to buzz at each other and chase each other around the trees around me. I have also been sitting still when I notice a nearby gnatcatcher hopping into low grass and shrubs to search for insects, buzzing excitedly all the while.

I like to think of gnatcatchers as having drunk too much coffee with their hyperactive behavior and unceasing buzzing noises. These delightful birds are easy to find in most of our wooded and scrubby open areas. Keep your ears ready to hear them and you never know what amusing gnatcatcher antics you will see.

The next monthly field trips on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands will be July 7 and Aug. 4. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur. For more information, please contact Mary Curry or the Forest Service District Office, (940) 627-5475.

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