In summer walk a short distance south along Swallow Hollow Trail and listen for a thin buzzy series of high-pitched notes coming from the trees over the boardwalk. If you can hear this song, you are listening to a blue-gray gnatcatcher, one of my favorite birds. In my case I can only recall it as I have long lost the ability to hear high pitch. I have to rely on companions to pick it out.
Blue-gray gnatcatcher is a big name for a tiny bird. These birds weigh only a fifth of an ounce, half as much as a chickadee. It is no wonder their song is so indistinct.
These are not only tiny birds but they are cute as well. To me they have the appearance of a miniature mockingbird. They have long, thin gray bodies that flash some white in the tail when they dash about; however, they lack the mockingbird’s white in the wings.
Unfortunately, unlike chickadees these birds are not attracted to proffers of seeds. Their diet, as their name indicates, is small insects. But there is a way to bring them down from their usual canopy patrol: imitate a screech owl whinny. They often join other small birds to “mob” the owl, so defenseless in daytime.
I have only once seen a gnatcatcher nest. It is a beautifully woven little cup of plant fibers that is much like that of the hummingbird. It is placed on a horizontal limb where it is perfectly camouflaged.
From mid-April to mid-September gnatcatchers are rather common birds here but they are rarely seen. Like tanagers, another common local species, they are birds that remain high overhead and are missed. If you know – and can hear – their songs, you can often find them in woodlots, especially those that include water.