03.06.16: Gnatcatcher

Female Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in tree, Highbanks Metro Park, Lewis Center, Ohio.


Technical information

June 2, 2007,
10:36 a.m.

40°9’14” N,
83°1'15" W
(Show in Google Maps)

Canon EOS 20D

Canon EF 600mm f/4L, Canon 1.4x teleconverter (840mm)


1/1000th second


I do a lot of bird photography, so much that I’ve reached the point where I can often anticipate the behavior of different bird species and position myself to get the photo I want.

For instance, I know that Eastern Bluebirds will often land on top of the tallest nearby plant in a field. I have a number of photos of Bluebirds perched on tall plants above a field. Goldfinches also hang around fields, but they usually perch just below the top of plants, blending in with the yellow surroundings. 

Then there’s the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a species that is one of the most difficult for me to photograph. The only predictable pattern to its behavior is that it is truly unpredictable. The species is small (a little more than four inches long), thin and extremely energetic, with birds hopping quickly from branch to branch and plant to plant in their constant search for food. They stay in open forest settings which makes it difficult to get an unobstructed view. And they seldom perch for more than seconds, which makes it extremely difficult to compose and focus a shot. So the photos I have of gnatcatchers can be attributed to equal parts photography skill and photographers’ luck.

The luck involved in this photo was spotting a gnatcatcher nest in a tree in Highbanks Metro Park north of Columbus, Ohio. The nests are small — only about two to three inches across — and built with flecks of bark on the exterior so they are camouflaged, matching the tree where they are built. I happened to see a gnatcatcher fly from the nest they were building. That’s the only way I found it.

So I watched that area, waiting for the birds to return and growing frustrated as they quickly flew in and out without pausing. Then my luck changed. The female in this photo was returning to the nest but the male was still there. So she stopped on a nearby limb for about 10 seconds, watching until he left.

And I got my photo.

I knew this was a female because the plumage is primarily gray. The male has more of a bluish tinge above and, during breeding season, has a single black line on each side of the crown.

The birds are called gnatcatchers, but gnats are not a primary part of the diet. They eat small insects, spiders and moths.

Each week I will post a photo from my collection with an explanation of how I got the shot. Previous photos of the week are in the archives.