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It’s In Your Nature: Energetic gnatcatchers are fun to watch

There are only a few birds that I dislike but so many that I really look forward to finding each year. One of my favorites is the tiny blue-gray gnatcatcher. This little bundle of energy is about 4½ inches in size, just a tad bit bigger than our ruby throated hummingbird. One of the reasons I enjoy seeing them is they are one of the first insect eating migrants to arrive back to the Times News region each year. I normally find the first ones about April 16, just as the buds are opening and the shadbush trees are flowering.

As their name implies, these tiny birds often “work” they way along a tree limb gleaning small insects and then will dart off to grab a gnat or another small flying insect. This year seems to be a banner year for the eastern tent caterpillars. Along one of my favorite birding trails the choke cherry tree branches are full of the white webs. I watched a pair of gnatcatchers pluck caterpillar after caterpillar that had strayed from the safety of the webbing. After that they went on to any nearby trees that had starting leafing out. Their constant activity amazed me. Apparently, those new leaves already hosted small caterpillars, beetles, or spiders.

Gnatcatchers, being small birds, have very high metabolisms. Their metabolism rivals that of the other two very small birds that feed here as well, the golden-crowned kinglet and ruby-crowned kinglet. These two species are about a ½-inch small than gnatcatchers. Both the kinglets breed to our north and migrate south for the winter. However the golden crowned kinglet remains in this area and somehow finds enough calories by gleaning food from the bark and tree cavities.

Gnatcatchers and ruby-crowned kinglets migrate farther south and can be found in southern states. If you ventured to any wooded area in Florida (for example) in mid-winter you could find both of these small birds. Since they don’t fly to the tropics to over-winter, gnatcatchers make their way back to Penn’s Woods earlier than most of the warblers.

Gnatcatchers in the northeastern U.S. prefer mixed deciduous woodlands (avoiding heavy conifer tracts) in which to nest and breed. They prefer habitats that contain streams or wet areas as well. Both the male and female build the nest together using plant fibers, thin strips of bark, and both spider and caterpillar webs. Almost all nests are “camouflaged” with pieces of lichens placed on the nest almost like stucco. The nest is usually not too close to the ground and far out on a thin limb and often sits atop a knot on the branch.

They sometimes nest twice and while they are feeding the young in the first nest, the ambitious male often begins a new one. She lays about 4 eggs at a time. Larger birds like blue jays or woodpeckers, and squirrels will eat the eggs or young if they locate the nest. Unfortunately, the nest parasitizing cowbirds can find them and these tiny gnatcatchers end up raising the huge cowbird chick. The good news is that unlike many birds relying on the tropics for winter feeding, gnatcatcher numbers have been slowly increasing.

Take a walk near a woodland edge and look for these super active birds. Get out there ...

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Which of these migrates the shortest distance? A. Broad-winged hawk; B. robin; C. osprey; D. snowy owl.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Rhododendrons thrive best on north facing, more damp hillsides.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are very small birds, weighing between 0.2 to 0.3 ounces, but they are “all energy.” Look for them spreading their rather long, white edged tail as they move about the branches. BARRY REED PHOTOS
Male gnatcatchers have a black “V” shaped eyebrow to distinguish them from the females.
Left: A few times this spring I've observed the gnatcatchers gleaning the small eastern tent caterpillars that were exposed outside of their protective webbing.
Above: Also very active in the spring tree branches are ruby-crowned kinglets. They too are very active, but have shorter tails, are a very different color, and believe it or not, even weigh less than the gnatcatchers.