A bird that I’ve come to associate with early spring is the blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) , a woodland sprite that returns in early to mid-April from its wintering territory in southern parts of our country. For years after I arrived in Barrington, I either did not see the species or overlooked it. Leafing through a 1972 edition of “Chicagoland Birds: Where and When to Find them,” I see that the gnatcatcher was designated as rare in northern Illinois. So perhaps it was not so common then. But it is now, if you know where to look.
Gnatcatchers favor mature woods for breeding habitat. They seem especially partial to oaks. Every spring my heart skips a beat when I hear a high, insect-like buzz from an oak crown, and welcome back the first-of-year gnatcatcher. Like kinglets and wrens, the diminutive bird flits more than it flies; it is in near-perpetual motion as it darts from branch to branch, often with its tail cocked and flicking back and forth, looking wide-eyed with its conspicuous white eye ring. The blue-gray plumage, long tail, white outer tail feathers give it the appearance of a miniature mockingbird.
Years ago, I found a gnatcatcher nest that had been blown off a tree. It is a treasure – what Robert Ridgway, eminent ornithologist who wrote The Birds of Illinois in 1889 called “one of the gems of bird architecture.” The nest is a soft, globular construction of tiny plant material covered in an exquisite assemblage of plant lichens held together with spider silk. I marvel every time I look at it. Not so small as a hummingbird nest, it still has the aspect of one, with an opening at the top which seems impossible for accommodating an adult brooding bird, not to mention the three to five eggs.
Every spring I watch intently the gnatcatchers that return to our woodland. And almost every year I’m able to ascertain the exact location of at least one nest as a pair flies back and forth with building material. The nest is small but often visible atop a horizontal limb, especially before the trees have leafed out completely. Once I’ve located one, I train a telescope on it for watching until leaves block the view.
This year I first heard and saw a blue-gray gnatcatcher near the Magic Hedge at Montrose Harbor in the city. The date was April 11. As I write this profile on April 21, I have not yet heard one in the oaks around our home. But I expect to any day.
Locally, there are plenty of places you can find gnatcatchers – Baker’s Lake Savanna, Citizen for Conservation’s Flint Creek Savanna, many of the Cook and Lake County forest preserves. Listen for buzzy notes emitted from high in the treetops and look for a diminutive feathered creature in constant motion. The blue-gray gnatcatcher may be small but its non-stop activity enlivens the wooded landscape, as well as the experience of anyone who takes the time to watch it.
Barrington area naturalist and the author of our Birds of Barrington series here at 365Barrington.com, Wendy Paulson welcomes you to join her for this new season of walks. Cosponsored by Audubon Chicago Region and Citizens for Conservation, the walks are free and open to the public, though spaces are limited and RSVPs are required. Waterproof boots are strongly recommended for these hikes and don’t forget your binoculars!
May 5, 7:30 a.m.
Baker’s Lake (parking lot on Highland Ave. south of Hillside Ave.)
May 12, 7:30 a.m.
Camp Reinberg (entrance on east side of Quentin between Dundee & Lake Cook Rd.)
May 19, 7:30 a.m.
Beverly Lake* (parking lot on north side of Higgins Rd/Rt. 72, east of Rt. 25, west of Beverly Road)
May 24, 7:30 a.m.
Penny Road South* (meet at Penny Road Pond parking lot, less than a mile west of Old Sutton/Penny Rd intersection)
June 2, 7:00 a.m.
Headwaters* (parking lot on Wichman Rd. off north side of Rt. 72; ½ mile west of Rt. 59)
June 9, 7:00 a.m.
Galloping Hill* (meet at Penny Road Pond parking lot, less than a mile west of Old Sutton/Penny Rd intersection)
June 18, 5:00 p.m.
Galloping Hill* (as above)
*indicates a more strenuous hike
Please RSVP to: Daniel Jacobson (312) 453-0230, Extension 2002 or email@example.com and let us know how best to contact you should that be necessary. Before you head out, please be sure to check the Citizens for Conservation website (CitizensForConservation.org) for any last minute changes or cancellations.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy. Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.