Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Blue Grosbeak, Yellow Warbler, and a Flurry of Songbirds Hidden in a Tangled Old Field

This morning a rough and thorny tangle of privet thickets, chinaberry trees, wild pears, and a mess of weedy shrubs and vines turned out to be a small spot full of beautiful songbirds – including a Blue Grosbeak, several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a White-eyed Vireo, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, two Great Crested Flycatchers, a Northern Parula, and – most surprising of all – a warm and sunny Yellow Warbler.

It all started with the calls of Blue Grosbeaks – bright calls of clink, coming from somewhere in the thickets as I walked along the dead-end road that runs by this small remnant of an old field. When I stopped to see if I could find them, instead I saw two silvery Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flitting in and out of shrubs on the edge of the field, and lisping wispy spee-speecalls. Tiny, animated birds, blue-gray and white, with long, slender black tails edged in white, they flew up to catch small insects in the air, and hovered to glean prey from leaves. Constantly in motion, they look like little sprites, airy and bright – and lots of fun to watch.

Walking further along the field, still following the calls of Blue Grosbeaks, I found several more Blue-gray Gnatcatchers spread out all along the edge of the thickets, catching the light and sparkling against the drab background of weeds.

A larger, more stocky songbird with a slightly crested head flew into the top of a chinaberry tree on the other side of the field from where I stood, and sat in full view, looking golden yellow in the sun. When it turned its head in my direction, a big, pale, conical beak showed up clearly. It was a Blue Grosbeak – a female or an immature male. Both are a warm cinnamon color all over, with brown wing bars, and the sunlight made this one look gold from a distance. 

A little further along, two Great Crested Flycatchers emerged from the weeds with a flash of wings and tails, foraging down so low they were almost on the ground. Large gray flycatchers with big, crested heads, lemon-yellow breasts, long cinnamon tails, and cinnamon touches in the wings, they snapped insects out of the air and from low in the grass. It’s more common to see Great Crested Flycatchers hunting from perches much higher in trees, so they looked a little out of place, but they are known to search for food near the ground, too.

They didn’t stay out long, and as I watched them move back into the thickets and out of sight, I came across the stunning view of a very long, dramatic black tail with big white spots. That’s all I could see, just the tail of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Its top part was screened by leaves, and before I could get a better look, it fled back into the bushes, leaving me with just the image of its isolated, spectacular tail, a little like the smile of a Cheshire Cat. 

Two more Blue-gray Gnatcatchers appeared, and I spent a few more minutes watching them, then walked along the field until I heard the song of a White-eyed Vireo that sounded close to the edge. I was surprised to find it almost at once, moving through a very thick tangle of grape vines, greenbrier and privet. A small songbird with a gray head and yellow spectacles, a white throat, yellow sides, and bright white wing bars, moving quickly but pausing often to sing.

At the same time, another bird was moving through the tangle of vines and branches a little lower than the vireo. This one was tiny and round, with a very yellow throat, a white belly, and small, bright white bars on each wing. White half-crescents surrounded the eyes – and its back was mossy green. It was a Northern Parula. An immature, I think, because it had no dark band across the chest. 

Then a very small, all-yellow bird popped out completely into the open, very low along the edge of the shrubs, and hopped daintily across some rough grass and sticks. It was a female Yellow Warbler. All smooth, warm yellow on the face and breast and belly, and the shadow of olive-yellow on the upper parts. It had a very round head, and a bright black eye that shined. It only stayed in view for a very few moments, before flitting back into the thickets. I’ve rarely seen a Yellow Warbler here, and only during spring or fall migration. Their breeding territory appears to be a little further north. But I’ve learned that Yellow Warblers are among the earliest species to begin fall migration, and they may be moving south by mid to late July. 

Rough, scrubby places like this remnant of an old field can offer valuable habitat for a variety of songbirds, both for nesting and for food and cover after the nesting season and during migration. So it’s really not surprising to find any of these birds here, but to see so many in a small spot in just this one morning did feel amazing. 

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