Watching a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
As migration proceeds in fits and starts I find myself torn between wanting to find as many birds as I can on each birding outing and wanting to take my time with each species that I haven’t seen since they left for fairer climes back in the fall. It is a conundrum and one that I don’t mind not being able to figure out, just so long as there are any birds at all around to see. On a recent visit to Jamaica Bay I took my time with each species that I found that was being remotely cooperative and also burned a bunch of time hoping that some fickle feathered freaks would become cooperative. Sadly, my first Black-and-white Warbler and Blue-headed Vireo of the year were both unwilling to cooperate. I made up for it with a remarkably obliging Polioptila caerulea.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers tend to forage rather high up in tall trees and generally the only way to even know that they are up there is to hear their plaintive little voices. But even knowing that they are up there only goes so far because they are tiny and the trees have leafed out early this year, which means that a quick glimpse of the bottom of a gnatcatcher is pretty much all that I expected when I heard one calling in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge’s North Garden. I was pleased when the bird turned out to be foraging in a relatively low tree that had sprouted very few leaves though I was less than pleased with the location of the sun, which was not entirely behind the bird but was close enough to make digiscoping this particular Blue-gray Gnatcatcher tough.
I stuck with it though, whether out of sheer stubbornness or rank stupidity or some combination of the two I am not sure, and I was pleased both with the pictures that I got and with what I learned about what the gnatcatcher was eating. Read on to find out if my sticktoitiveness was worth while…
First of all, can you figure out what is so interesting to the gnatcatcher in the following picture?
Don’t see it? Don’t worry. It took me watching what happened next to figure out why the gnatcatcher was staring so intently at those twigs in front of its face.
You’ll notice that in the picture above the gnatcatcher has a caterpillar in its mouth and that one of the twigs that was in front of its face, but is now by its tail, is gone. That is because it was not a twig but a clever caterpillar trying to use camouflage to evade becoming dinner. I guess that means that you could call the picture above “Caterpillar Fail.”
In his book Summer World: A Season of Bounty, Bernd Heinrich writes about an experiment that he did with some students. He put caterpillars like the one above in a small tree and asked the students to find them. It took a very long time for any individual student to find the first caterpillar but once they found one they found finding the rest very easy. Once you know what method the caterpillars are using to hide you know not just what you are looking for but how to look. And this gnatcatcher knew how to look.
In addition to the two above I saw the gnatcatcher catch one more caterpillar in the twenty minutes I spent with it making me think that this individual should be a Blue-gray Caterpillarcatcher, though that is almost as much as a mouthful for birders as the caterpillar is for the bird.
The gnatcatcher did more than just forage. It also sang, and even if its song will never inspire poets or even attract much attention it sure put its all into singing!
Take some time with the birds this spring. They are worth the extra attention and once they have moved through or, worse, left for the winter, you will wish that you had spent that extra five minutes with that bird. And, who knows, maybe you’ll see something that you never saw before.
If you liked this post and want to see more great images of birds make sure to check out 10,000 Clicks, our big (and growing) page of galleries here at 10,000 Birds.