Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 29, 2010

Gnatcatcher at the Gnest

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:58 pm

This has been a terrific personal year for finding bird nests. I’ll go several years at a stretch without finding even one (I am, of course, not counting robin nests) but this season I’ve been luckier than normal. The Phoebe and Cooper’s Hawk (see here the female on the nest as of this morning) were great finds, along with at least three Red-winged Blackbird nests. I can now add Gnatcatchers to that list.  I didn’t originally find this particular one, however. It was located by a friend who described the location to a tee.  In the case of a gnatcatcher nest, finding even a well described nestspot can be a challenge. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t have found it on my own, but find – or re-find it-  I did.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are distinctive little birds if not entirely forthcoming. They are better known by their hissing little call than by their appearance. These tiny slinking birds tend to stay high up in the branches and force one to break a few neck vertebrae while searching for them. True to their description they are indeed blue gray. They have overly long tails and long insect eating bills (see above).  Yes, they do eat gnats, although gflies, gmoths, and gcaterpillers are also consumed.

Although warbler-like, they are actually grouped among the so-called Old World Warblers and thus the non-warbler name.  They do pale in comparison with our bright assemblage of New World Warblers, but there’s something about that silent “G” in the name that gives them some kind of distinction.  It puts them in the club with the likes of other silent starters like Gnomes and Pfaltzgraff .  I wonder if Gnomes use  Pfaltzgraff China? I really don’t Gknow.

The whole point of this discussion, however, is to introduce you to that wonderful creation of nature called the Gnatcatcher nest. Probably the best way to describe this structure is that it looks like a giant hummingbird nest. The word “giant” (spelled Gniat by gnomes and transposing keyboardists) is relative. The Ruby-throated hummingbird makes a nest that is about the diameter of a Kennedy half dollar, while the gnatcatchers nest is twice that size. The resemblance comes from the heavy use of lichens and spider webs by both species for nest construction.

Gnatcatchers appear to glue their nest directly to a branch rather than use a crotch to support it. They often employ spider webs to adhere the thing and then build up the walls with well-place lichens plucked from nearby trees (see earlier “construction shot” here). The interior of the finished structure consists of  fine grasses and silky down.  When completed, the nest looks more like a knot than a gnest (see completed nest below).

I watched the pair put the finishing touches on their knot (or is it gnot?) nest. Both male and female were engaged in the process. Each brought in a piece, placed it, and then nestled it in with a snug body wiggle (see the windy day footage here).

The only bad thing about finding a bird nest like this one is that you instantly begin to take some emotional ownership of it. You are compelled to watch the progress of the brood as if you are mother hen and worry about it like a Jewish Mother-in-Law. In this case, the worry factor has already kicked in. I do not doubt the persistence and vitality of the little artisans, but there is a cloud in their future. Cowbirds have been hanging around the location for many days now. These birds are nest parasites that lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. Their young eventually push out the native chicks and grow fat on the work of the unsuspecting adoptive parents. The Gnatcatchers have yet to start laying their eggs, so the cowbirds can’t do a thing as of yet.

I gknow there is gnothing I can do about it now except fret and look for more nests to worry about – and spend some more time admiring the Gnice construction work on this one.


  1. What a great find! I found a gnatcatcher gnest once while working in The Great Swamp in NJ, but the best BGGn experience I had was coming across a female (well, how do I know – it could’ve been the male) bringing food to two or three (the memory fails) newly fledged offspring, all sitting on a twig alongside the trail. No camera in hand, of course. Still, it was a great experience.

    Comment by Ellen — April 30, 2010 @ 10:21 am

  2. I’ve only seen gnatcatcher once, and gnever its gnest.

    In general, I’m quite pitiful at spotting gnests of any sort. A pair of cardinals has taken pity on me this year, constructing a gnest at exactly my eye-level in a tree that lines the driveway. They all but installed a flashing gneon sign reading “Gnest Here!”

    Comment by Joy K. — May 2, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

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