For the Birds Radio Program: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Three years ago, when I was in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, teaching an elderhostel, one evening when I was taking a walk by myself, I suddenly heard an unexpected but very welcome sound—a tiny spzee over and over. I searched through the trees and finally found the singer—a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. This delicate and lovely bird, tinier and much more slender than a chickadee, is one of my all-time favorite species, though I’ve never lived where they are abundant. They’re virtually unheard of in the Northland—this was apparently the first record ever for Lincoln County, though there are one or two records in Douglas County, Wisconsin, and a couple of times, I’ve missed seeing one by five minutes in Duluth.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers spend a lot of time in shrubbery at eye level in the Southwest, but here in Minnesota and Wisconsin they spend their lives in treetops, and are very hard to see. But even a glimpse at one is worthwhile—its back is soft blue, set off to perfection by the snow-white underside. It has an unusually long tail for such a tiny mite, black above set off by white outer tail feathers which are quite conspicuous from beneath. The tiny beak seems too delicate to be of use, but is the perfect tool for snatching up the microscopic gnat meals for which it is named. Males have a hint of a black eyeline, and both sexes have a white eye-ring, giving their faces an interested look.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers have a song as tiny as they are—just a tiny spzee. Although they seldom sit still for even a moment, and have such a tiny song, people somehow have taken enough notice of them to give them half a dozen nicknames, like the chay-chay and the sylvan flycatcher. They’re fidgety from sunrise till sunset—people studying perpetual motion might consider them as a model. They build a beautiful little nest of lichens, bark strips, feathers, hair, and fine grasses, held to the tree branch with spider silk, but so far no one has ever detected a nest with eggs in Wisconsin.
Such a tiny bird goes through its life and death pretty much unnoticed by people, and by 1972 there were only three band returns ever of this elusive species. Oddly, one of these returns was from Mexico, where a boy beaned it with a slingshot. The bird was at least 2 ½ or 3 years old when it was killed.
Although gnatcatchers aren’t found normally in the Northland, we don’t have to drive too far to see them. In the Midwest, they’re usually found in river bottomlands— in the southeastern part of Minnesota or anywhere in the southern half of Wisconsin. Of course, once you’re in the right place, there’s still the matter of actually finding the bird—listen hard for its little lisp, and search the trees. They do occasionally respond to pishing sounds, coming close enough to give a permanent check on a lifelist as well as a soul-satisfying moment of delight.