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Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Polioptila caerulea

Length: 4.5 inches Wingspan: 6 inches Seasonality: Summer
ID Keys: Blue-gray upperparts, white underparts, bold white eyering, white outer tail feathers

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher - Polioptila caeruleaThe range of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher has been steadily expanding throughout the 20th century. Most range maps show them barely reaching the extreme southeastern corner of South Dakota, but they've become quite established as breeding birds in the forested lands and riparian areas in the southeastern part of the state. Very small birds normally found in woodlands, they can sometimes be difficult to observe as they flit about the tree tops.  


Varies by region, preferring deciduous forests in the East, pine forests with a deciduous understory in the South, and shrubby habitat in the West.


Feeds almost exclusively on insects and spiders.


 Extremely active, foraging actively among trees and shrubs in search of insects.  Will take prey while perched, hovering, or by flycatching and catching insects in mid-air. 


May and June in South Dakota.  The nest consists of a small cup of grassees, weeds, strips of bark, and other material, lined with softer material such as plant down or feathers. The outside of the nest is often camouflaged with mosses and lichen.  The female lays 4 or 5 eggs, and both parents help to incubate them.  Upon hatching, both parents help to feed the young, although the male does most of the feeding early on, while the female tends to the young.


Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are skilled songsters and mimics, with a very broad variety of songs that include musical notes, whistles, chips, and mew notes of variable length, sometimes also incorporating bits of songs of other species. A broad variety of vocalizations may also be used as alarm calls and other calls, although the most frequently heard call is a thin, nasal whistling.


Summers throughout much of the United States except for the Pacific Northwest and the northern tier of states.  Winters in the extreme southern United States and southward.

Interactive eBird Map:

Click to access an interactive eBird map of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher sightings

Similar Species:

Similar to the several other Gnatcatchers, but these other species all have normal ranges well to the south of South Dakota and have never been seen in this state. In their normal ranges outside of South Dakota, here are the keys to differentiating Gnatcatcher species.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher - Polioptila melanura California Gnatcatcher - Polioptila californica Black-capped Gnatcatcher - Polioptila nigriceps
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher California Gnatcatcher Black-capped Gnatcatcher

Conservation Status:

They have expanded in numbers and in range in the 20th century, and systematic surveys in recent years show that numbers continue to increase. They are found across a very broad geographic area and are common in parts of that range. The IUCN lists the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher as a species of "Least Concern".

South Dakota "Hotspot":

Most common in the extreme southeastern part of the state, I've had very good luck finding them at all of the heavily forested parks, including Newton Hills State Park, Good Earth State Park, the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls, and the Big Sioux Recreation Area.

Further Information:

  1. Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  2. WhatBird - Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  3. Audubon Guide- Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Photo Information:

May 16th, 2011 - Big Sioux Recreation Area near Brandon, South Dakota - Terry Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Blue-gray Gnatcatcher photos.

Audio File Credits:

Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Uncommon summer breeder in the extreme southeastern part of the state.  Casual breeder and visitor in the Black Hills.

Additional Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 1 - Polioptila caeruleaBlue-gray Gnatcatcher 2 - Polioptila caeruleaBlue-gray Gnatcatcher 3 - Polioptila caeruleaBlue-gray Gnatcatcher 4 - Polioptila caeruleaBlue-gray Gnatcatcher 5 - Polioptila caeruleaBlue-gray Gnatcatcher 6 - Polioptila caeruleaBlue-gray Gnatcatcher 7 - Polioptila caeruleaBlue-gray Gnatcatcher 8 - Polioptila caeruleaBlue-gray Gnatcatcher 9 - Polioptila caeruleaBlue-gray Gnatcatcher 10 - Polioptila caeruleaBlue-gray Gnatcatcher 11 - Polioptila caeruleaBlue-gray Gnatcatcher 12 - Polioptila caeruleaBlue-gray Gnatcatcher 13 - Polioptila caerulea