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Posts Tagged ‘Polioptila caerulea’

One of the coolest spring birds in our area is the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), a tiny bird that is only slightly larger than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I spotted this one last week in the trees at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher has a distinctive call, so it is easy to know when one is around. Finding the bird, though, can be a real challenge because they are small, energetic, and spend a lot of time high in the trees. The trees are really starting to leaf out now, which adds another level of complexity to the challenge.

Several years ago I spotted a gnatcatcher’s nest (see my 2018 posting Gnatcatcher nest) and I am hoping to find one again this year. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers make their nests in a way that seems almost magical, using lichens and spiderwebs.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was searching in a small field of eye-height vegetation for dragonflies last Wednesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, my eyes detected a flash of blue and white and I realized that a bird had joined me in the field. I was shocked to see that it was a male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). During my previous encounters with a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, the bird has always been moving about in the foliage high in a tree.

I sprung into action and managed to get some decent shots of this tiny bird, despite the fact that I was shooting with my 180mm macro lens, the one that I generally use for the macro shots of insects that you see on this blog. The coolest image, I think, is the first one and it was mostly a matter of luck. I had just taken the second shot below when the gnatcatcher took off and I instinctively pressed the shutter release and captured a fun action shot.

So what was the gnatcatcher doing at ground level? As I was was processing my images I noticed that there were old spider webs in most of them. It is most obvious in the final photo, but if you click on the other images, you will see webs to the left of the bird in the penultimate shot (and in its mouth, I think), and also to the right of the bird and a little lower in the second shot (and possibly in the corner of its mouth).

Why would they be messing with spider webs? According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher pairs use spiderwebs and lichens to build small, neat nests on top of tree branches and may build up to seven nests in a breeding season.  The website also notes that breeding males have a black V above their foreheads extending above their eyes, which you can see quite clearly in the second shot. I wonder if breeding season is begining

I have not spotted any gnatcatcher nests yet this year, but two years ago in late May I took some shots of a nest at the same refuge that show the amazing construction abilities of these little birds. Check out the posting called Baby gnatcatchers? by clicking on the title of the posting or clicking here. The nests are fascinating to examine.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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At this time of the year I often hear the distinctive singing of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea), but I rarely get a clear view of these tiny birds. I like the way the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website describes these birds, “The nasal, wheezy, rambling song and insistent, squeaky calls are great first clues to finding them, particularly as these tiny birds can get lost in the generally taller habitats used in the eastern part of their range.” If you are interested in hearing samples of the different calls and songs of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, click this link to another part of the same website.

Once I have heard the singing, I begin to scan the foliage near the top of top of a tree and if I am lucky I will detect some motion. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers like to flick their tails from side to side to scare up insects and then the gnatcatchers chase after them. Strangely, though, gnats do not form a significant part of their diet. So, in addition to being small (about 4 inches (10 cm) in length), they are almost always moving—that makes it quite a challenge to photograph one.

I was therefore quite thrilled to capture this image last Friday of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I had been tracking this bird for a while as it moved about from one patch of leaves to another and was more or less ready when it popped out of the foliage onto this small branch.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There is no doubt that I love photographing majestic raptors, like the bald eagles that I regularly feature. Yet there is something equally special about capturing images of tiny songbirds, like this perky little Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) that I spotted earlier this week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

How small are these birds? According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are 3.9-4.3 inches in length (10-11 cm) and weigh 0.2-0.3 ounces (5-9 grams), just slightly larger than a hummingbird. The same source notes that, despite the bird’s name, gnats do not form a significant part of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s diet.

Who comes up with these names?

 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I don’t know for sure if there were babies in this nest on Monday, but this adult Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) kept bending forward into the nest, including the moment in the first image when it had what looked to be an insect in its mouth. Was it feeding some young ones? I have seen numerous photos this spring of baby birds with wide open mouths and I have been longing to capture some images like that.

Several weeks ago I watched as two gnatcatchers worked on this nest at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge here in Northern Virginia. I marveled at their patience and at their amazing craftsmanship. They would bring small bits of material into the nest (spider webs and lichen from what I have read) and place them carefully. Then they would rotate their bodies while sitting in the nest to compact the material.

It was a bit of a challenge to capture these shots. I was shooting upwards and there was a leafy canopy that filtered out a lot of the light. I also tried really hard not to disturb the birds, so I kept my distance, avoided using flash, and limited the time that I was shooting.

Are there babies in the nest? If they are not there now, they should be coming soon. I will be sure to check out the nest when I return to this little wetland refuge some time in the near future and maybe then I will be able to capture shots of the little ones being fed.

 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It seems like I am increasingly spending my time trying to track small birds as they energetically flit about in a tangle of newly-emerged leaves. In their aggressive foraging for food, they rarely seem to pause and pose for me on isolated branches, so I am figuring out ways to integrate the foliage into my photos.

Here are a couple of images of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea) from this past weekend at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge that show not only the birds, but also a part of their environment. As I was doing a little research on this gnatcatcher on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, I was a bit surprised to learn that gnats do not form a significant part of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s diet—they eat all kinds of insects and spiders.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled yesterday when I managed to spot a tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) in a nest at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. These little birds use lichen and spiderwebs to make nests that blend in amazingly well with the trees on which they are found and it is unlikely that I would have been able to spot the nest if the bird had not been initially sitting in it.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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