It’s baby bird season, and walking down the trail I hear them shrilling all around me from their little nests. Seldom do I actually see the nest; the parent birds are good at making it invisible. Though every spring I usually come across a Cardinal, Robin or Carolina wren nest, that’s about it.
But yesterday I got to see a nest I’ve never observed before, in a place where it was quite unexpected.
Every new season I have to refresh my memory of bird songs, built over a lifetime of birdwatching. One song I’ve been hearing a lot is that of the Blue-gray gnatcatcher, whose “nasal, wheezy, rambling song and insistent, squeaky calls” seem to be issuing from every moist thicket in the forest. But the calls I heard yesterday were coming from just above my car in the Lousiville Nature Center parking lot, and something was different about them. A little more intimate perhaps?
Peering straight up into the dense leafy shade of a White oak, I saw the singer land next to a small lichen covered cup. Another bird popped its head up from within the nest.
The pair then shared some food the male had brought, and he was off again quickly to find more. Gnatcatchers are not quiet birds – his wheezy little voice could be heard nonstop as he foraged busily along the woods edge.
The female also left the nest, which was apparently still under construction, and returned with some fine fluffy material that looked like a spider web. A gnatcatcher nest could be easily mistaken for a hummingbird’s nest except for its slightly larger size. But it would still fit into my cupped hand.
The nest description below is from Arthur Cleveland Bent’s amazing twenty-one volume work “Life Histories of North American Birds” (1919-1968). https://birdsbybent.com/
“If it were possible to extract a composite or average of all the published descriptions of the nest of the gnatcatcher–and the wording of most of them is monotonously similar–the result would be something like this: A beautiful, cup-shaped nest, compactly built of plant down and similar materials bound together with insect silk and spider web and covered externally with bits of lichen. Materials listed seem to include every kind of soft plant fiber found in the region where the subject nest was located. Many writers use the general terms “plant down” and “fleecy plant substances,” but a few particularize with “sycamore fuzz,” “leaf down from the under surfaces of leaves,” “dandelion and thistle down,” and “dried blossoms.” Fibrous materials that enter into the lining of nests include fine strips of bark, fine grasses, tendrils, feathers, and horsehair. A. T. Wayne (1910) collected several nests that were “profusely lined with feathers.” W. P. Proctor mentions having seen a gnatcatcher in northern Florida “picking the petals from dewberry blossoms [Rubus trivialis] for its nest.”
While working on the nest, every so often she would pop up her head for a look around.
I was lucky to spot the gnatcatchers before the female settled down to brood her eggs. Now it’s pretty quiet at the nest, the female’s long tail the only sign of occupancy. Blue-gray gnatcatchers brood their eggs for 11-15 days, so if all goes well the nest will get busy again in a couple weeks.
In the meantime the male keeps busy lurking around the general area, alert for danger. Gnatcatchers don’t exactly keep their nest a secret, so he must be constantly on duty, ready to chase off intruders.