Recording Black-tailed Gnatcatchers

An exciting event for me occurred this past week, when I received my first real microphone, a Sennheiser ME66 shotgun mic. More on that later, but needless to say, I had to get outside to take it for a spin at the first opportunity!

This afternoon, I took advantage of the perfect weather and headed out to my very favorite local spot, Cape Havasu. After giving the lake a scan, I headed down into the desert to find something that was making noise. I was teased by briefly calling Marsh Wrens, a distant Song Sparrow. It was amazingly quiet. A Phainopepla peered out from its favorite mesquite, called once, then went silent. Before long, though, I heard the scratchy notes of a singing Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.

Some argue that the song of a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher doesn’t deserve the designation of a “song”, since it’s not pretty, but I’m sure it does as much for a lady gnatcatcher as the fluting of a Wood Thrush does for a thrush.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

The Black-tailed Gnatcatcher is a tiny, often common, but always adorable desert bird (Photo credit: J. N. Stuart)

Anyway, I approached the singer, who was buried in a mesquite, and recorded as he babbled, interspersing the typical “ch-ch-ch-ch-ch” song with scolding call notes and ticking, Verdin-like calls. I’ve been interested in this type of complex song in Black-tailed Gnatcatchers for a while. Its function is not well understood (at least as of the writing of the Birds of North America account). Listen below, but be aware that my fancy new mic was not able to erase the traffic on the nearby road, and I’m a beginner!

(All these recordings are also on Xeno-Canto, but WordPress is lame about allowing iframes in that they don’t.)

Before long he lapsed into the typical “ch-ch-ch-ch-ch” song.

He soon moved off, but I noted his neighbor had been singing a bit as well. I scooted down to say hello, and found him acrobatically flycatching (gnatcatching?) in the arrowweed and mesquite, throwing in a song here and there. The first bird continued to sing, and you can just hear him in the background.

The calling bird in the background seemed to be this bird’s mate. We’ll get to her in a minute. Just for fun, I threw together a couple of spectrograms (using Raven) to compare the typical songs of the two males. (To learn how to read spectrograms, I highly recommend reading this!)

Spectrograms comparing the songs of two neighbor Black-tailed Gnatcatchers

Spectrograms comparing the songs of two neighbor Black-tailed Gnatcatchers

Sound 1 and Sound 2, the top two windows in the screenshot above, are of different songs given by the first male. The bottom two songs (Sound 3) are the second male. Note that the first male sang longer individual notes spaced closer together. Of course I can’t draw any conclusions from listening to these birds for just a few minutes and looking at a few songs, but it does raise some interesting questions and hypotheses. Why was the first bird singing a more hurried song? Each of the songs above is different; how variable is a gnatcatcher’s song?

As I mentioned above, the second male communicated continuously with a nearby bird that I believe was his mate. The first male was unattended, as far as I could tell. Maybe there is some difference in the songs of unmated birds. Maybe his complex song is an advertisement meant for the ladies, as the second bird didn’t sing a complex song, and I hear the plain “ch-ch-ch-ch-ch” song much more often. I’ll be keeping an ear out for this in the future!

Apparently done with singing for the time being, the second male began calling back and forth with his presumed lady-friend.

She then flew in to meet him, and one of the birds (or both?) began giving this unusual call as they foraged together.

One of my favorite aspects of recording birds is that it gets me to slow down and spend a little more time watching and listening. Just 15 minutes with these gnatcatchers taught me a little but raised a lot of questions! I have a lot to learn about vocalizations, their functions, recording and interpreting them. It has been a great learning experience so far!

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Breeding male Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About Lauren Harter

I live in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where I work as a field biologist and spend as much of the rest of my time as possible looking at (and listening to!) birds.
This entry was posted in Havasu NWR, LCRV, Sound Recordings, Species Profiles and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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