The cool humidity of summer rain stuck to my skin as the front rumbled in. Lightning flashed in the distance casting a disco ball lighting effect on the riparian floor beneath the dense stand of white alder and chokecherry. The alder catkins released the few remaining tufts of cotton seeds as the branches rattled in the breeze, and among the clatter of leaves, the faint cry of the gray catbird drifted through the timber.
The catbird was one of a few species to successfully raise a clutch for the first time in the alder run during the spring of 2021 and I was unsure if it would return. When I purchased the property in 2016, cattle had been grazing the meager acreage and kept the brush tamped down in the now lush creek corridor and the birds have taken notice of the vegetation rebound. Bullock’s orioles, yellow warblers, and even a varied thrush all appeared last spring, but their appearance in 2022 was uncertain.
I had stalked the catbird with my Nikon for a week and it proved formidable in the predator avoidance department. Wary and cunning, it would tolerate only fleeting glimpses, bolting the moment it realized I had established line-of-sight. The bird left me to log dozens of useless photos as my target acquisition skills had rusted since the upland bird hunting season closed.
I knew its namesake cat-like call, but the variety of other voices I thought I was hearing was the catbird proudly showcasing its robust vocal array. Kneeling by the paddock fence and peering through the lichen-encrusted rails and tree branches finally provided a couple moments to observe the wary bird.
Male catbirds sing a tune that can be minutes long and comprised of bits of other bird songs, even those of domestic chickens and frog ribbits. Tones of the American robin, red-winged blackbird, lesser goldfinch, House finch and House wren projected from the catbird’s powerful vocal cords as I photographed. All of these species were simultaneously present on the homestead, but had I never laid eyes on them, I would have been left to assume the catbird was putting me on.
While not as showy as beauties like the Bullock’s oriole, the catbird is a beauty in its own right. If you believe the color gray can be rich and deep, then you’ve probably spied the catbird at some point in time. Their plumage boasts a tinge of stormy blue with a coal-black cap and tail feather tips punctuating their otherwise modest appearance.
My difficulty in pinning down the bird for a few photos educated me to their elusiveness being partially owed to their dark coloring and propensity to inhabit the densest, shadiest parts of the riparian. Catbirds prefer shrubby trees like dogwood, hawthorn, cherry, elderberry and viny plants like honeysuckle and blackberry for nesting. Their summer food sources consist of insects, fruits and berries, and I assume the increase in chokecherry and blackberry on the homestead have been the main draw to the catbird in recent years.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, females build open-cup nests made of twigs, straw, bark, and mud which have a finely woven inner lining of grass, hair, rootlets, and pine needles. Clutch sizes range from one to six and females can have two to three clutches per year. Eggs are turquoise in color and occasionally have red spots (which I have unfortunately never seen). Males aggressively defend their territory, even in winter, which is unusual among songbirds.
Next time you find yourself up a brushy Blue Mountain draw, keep an eye peeled for a flash of gray and an ear out for a raspy “mew.” Aside from being unassumingly stunning, the catbird’s photography challenge is worth pursuing as they move from tree to tree and branch to branch. If you stick with them, you just might nab a passable photo and hear their complex song long enough to realize you’ve been had by a master of mimicry.