By Rafael Galvez
At around 8:20 am, September 18, 2013, loose flights of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers with dozens and dozens of individuals became apparent over Long Key State Park. Soon, there were hundreds of gnatcatchers heading SSW at various altitudes. By 9:10 am, I had tallied an estimated 650 gnatcatchers in flight. All were detected as I paced no more than 50 yards while keeping tally and attempting to photograph the event.
This morning, Rachel Smith, Kerry Ross and I conducted one of our daily morning transect counts at Long Key State Park. There was a nice diversity of birds in the park, with a number of warbler species dominated by Ovenbird, Common Yellowthroat and American Redstart. This day, we also saw our first-of-the-season Tennessee Warblers and Palm Warblers. Highlights included several Chuck-wills Widows, and a small sparrow flock with Chipping and Clay-colored Sparrows. Clay-colored Sparrow (photo below) has been seen for the second consecutive fall count at Long Key, yet was missing from the park’s official list of vertebrates before our surveys last year.
While I have birded South Florida during migration many times and thought I’d encountered plenty of gnatcatchers, I had never experienced anything like the flights described above. Although the photos do a great job in capturing some of the birds coming through, it was very challenging to document the experience. Many of the birds were vocalizing, darting all over the sky in spurts that at times included more than 50 simultaneously detectable birds. I am certain that my estimate of 650 is conservative. While there were suddenly many gnatcatchers in the surrounding coastal trees and shrubs, it was apparent most were flying beyond the key. All photos were taken with a LEICA V-LUX 5. Below, a Hammock Skipper, a Moonflower, a Southern Black Racer, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.