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Feathered Friends – Blue-gray gnatcatcher signals rush of migration

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are tiny, energetic bundles of feathers. (Photo courtesy of Jean Potter)

By Bryan Stevens

I’m still waiting for the arrival of blue-gray gnatcatchers. Most likely, these tiny birds have already arrived but my schedule hasn’t yet allowed me a glimpse at this punctual songbird. Back in March, I saw and heard dozens of them during a trip to the South Carolina Low Country.

Birds are as dependable as clocks and calendars when it comes to noting the passage of time. I can keep track of the changing seasons based on the composition of the birds in my yard. The gnatcatcher has long been my signal to the start of the frenzied pace of spring migration for many of the birds returning to the region after sojourns much farther south. For example, the first gnatcatcher arrived in my yard in 2014 on Aug. 4. Two days earlier, I had observed my first Blue-grey Gnatcatcher of the spring while visiting Winged Deer Park in Johnson City. It doesn’t hurt that the arrival of gnatcatchers coincides with the annual blooming of bluebells, a wildflower for which this local park is famous.

The Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers reliably return every year in the final days of March and first days of April. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher put in its first appearance at a home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton on April 2 in 2011. In 2009, I also saw my first Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher on April 2, although in 2008 I had to wait until April 5 for my first spring sighting of a gnatcatcher. In 2007, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was an “April Fool’s” bird, arriving on the first day of April.

Arrival dates in March are a little less frequent. For instance, in 2003, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher arrived on March 28. I saw my first spring Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on March 30 in 1998. In 2006, the arrival date was March 31.

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is a tiny, active bird with noisy habits that make it fairly easy to detect in early spring before foliage has grown dense in the branches of trees. This gnatcatcher ranks with the kinglets and hummingbirds as one of the smallest birds to range within the United States. This tiny bird tips the scales at only a fourth of an ounce. A gnatcatcher is an incredible bundle of feathered energy, seemingly always on the move as they snatch small winged insects out of the air or pluck other prey items from leaves or branches. They’re also quite curious birds that, more than once, have given me the feeling that I am the one being observed while watching their antics.

Like the hummingbirds, the gnatcatchers are an exclusively New World family of birds. They lack the diversity of the hummingbirds. Instead of several hundred species, there are only about a dozen species of gnatcatchers. Of that number, four — Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, California Gnatcatcher, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Black-capped Gnatcatcher — range within the United States. The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is the only member of this family to reside in the eastern United States. Other representatives of this family of small songbirds include the Cuban Gnatcatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher, Tropical Gnatcatcher and Masked Gnatcatcher.

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher builds an exquisite and compact nest using such materials as spider silk and lichens. I have found many nests over the years by listening for the scolding notes of the parents which, even near their nest, have not learned the virtues of silence.

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is one of the birds that, in my mind, truly kicks off the arrival season of many of my favorite neotropical migrants.

I’m still waiting to hear from readers about the dates Ruby-throated Hummingbirds return to their homes. To report your sighting, including the date and time, send me an email at [email protected]