Sunday, May 11, 2008

Air Mail?

Lively Sprite On The Scene

The air is vibrant with nuptial song. A male orchard oriole is singing from a tall willow. His mate brings pieces of long, green grass and entwines them into the basket nest hanging at the end of a water oak's sweeping branch.

From a nearby cottonwood, a male summer tanager interrupts his song every few seconds to give his harsh distress note, "quick, pick-it-up." (Say it fast and deep to get the tempo of the note.)

From deep within the thorny thicket, a gray catbird is singing his song. A yellow-breasted chat is chuckling from the brier patch. "Witchity, whichity, witchity." A secreted yellow-throat lets us know he is about but he's not showing himself.

Through all this tuning up and singing, I hear a tiny, high pitched note, like the plucking of an elf's guitar. I listen. "Tsing, tsin--g," it calls. Searching through the greening leaves, I see the owner. Agile, petite, gray-blue and white, with flashing long, black, white-edged tail, the blue-gray gnatcatcher is greedily downing its breakfast of insects. Its beady eyes dance from behind a tiny white ring of feathers, accented by its black forehead and black eye-stripe. It wears an immaculate white shirt. Its slender tail is held cocked like that of a wren.

This little sprite is more abundant in the winter here in the Central Savannah River Area when the northern nesters come down to enjoy southern hospitality. Some migrants even hop the Gulf to Guatemala and the Islands for the colder months.

Measuring only four and a half inches from his thin bill to the end of his twitching tail, it breeds over a large part of the United States.

Its nest resembles that of a hummingbird's, though it's some three or four times larger. Four or five tiny bluish-white eggs are laid. They are loosely sprinkled with reddish-brown dots. In the northern part of their range, these petite birds rear but a single brood in a season but in the deep South two broods are normal.

When a novice birdwatcher first sees this small, tail-flicking bird, he will immediately say it looks like a "miniature mockingbird," and he is right. The similarity of the two birds (except for their size) is indeed striking. Both birds have slender bodies, both are gray, though not the same shade, both have long tails, and many of their habits and expressions are alike.

Gnatcatchers are common birds in wooded areas of cities, yet they are not too well known. Perhaps it is because they are "tree birds," small and quick moving. Yet they can be readily distinguished from other small birds . . . chickadees, kinglets and small warblers . . . by the length of their tails.

One of the favorite haunts of these small, pretty and lively birds is residential areas with wooded streets. If you want to know these petite and active birds, grab your binoculars, go outside and search the treetops for them now while they are busy with family duties.