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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Follow your ears

When I first started birding, one of the things I enjoyed most was learning to identify birds by their sounds.  I hoped that one day I could walk around and identify all of the species I was hearing without even seeing them.

I can still remember starting this process.  I would sit somewhere, pick out a sound and follow it until I found the bird.  Then I would go back to the original spot, pick out a different sound and do the same thing over and over until I could recognize all of the species I was hearing from that location.  Then I would move to another spot with different sounds and start again.  I was also very fortunate that many of the birders I was hanging out with at the time were excellent at birding-by-ear and unselfish in sharing their knowledge.

Following bird sounds is still one of my favorite things to do.  Today I followed a high-pitched wheezy zeee note coming from the coyote brush in the dunes.  I knew what it was, but I wouldn't have seen the bird if I hadn't been listening.


This is a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea).  They're considered rare migrants on Bodega Head.  During the last few years it seems like one or two individuals have spent the winter on Bodega Head.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are small songbirds with very long tails.  The common name calls attention to their overall blue-gray coloration and their insect-eating habits.

Note the bold white eye-ring.  The tail is black with white outer feathers.  When folded (as in the first photo above), the white edges are just visible.  But gnatcatchers often fan or flare their tails (perhaps to flush their insect prey), revealing the contrasting back and white feathers.

This next flight shot provides a better view of the white outer tail feathers.


Gnatcatchers can be hard to follow.  They move among the branches of trees and shrubs, flitting here and there, and then fly off to the next clump of shrubs.  I lost this bird several times today, but listened carefully for the zeee call, relocated it, and finally ended up with a few photographs.


In non-breeding plumage, males and females are difficult to separate.  But if you see one in the spring, look for the strong black eyebrow stripes of the males.  The male below was photographed near Owl Canyon on 17 March 2012.


I didn't get a recording today, but here's a link to a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher calling and singing, thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library.  If you hear these buzzy notes, follow your ears and you might catch a glimpse of this wonderful little songbird!

1 comment:

Claudia said...

And the sound recording is from our very own UC Berkeley Hastings Natural History Reservation