To refresh your memory, here is the photo from July’s Bird Quiz. It was taken in western Washington during the month of September. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
Most gray birds live in the desert, where they blend in nicely with their pale, arid surroundings. Western Washington is anything but desert. In fact, it’s pretty dark and dreary much of the year. So there aren’t that many gray birds there.
While anything is possible, it’s highly unlikely that a desert bird (such as a Gray Vireo or a Gray Flycatcher) will show up in wet Washington. Which small gray birds do live in the Pacific Northwest? It might take a while to hunt through every photo in a field guide, so I’ll save you the effort. Gray birds include a variety of flycatchers, Wrentits and Bushtits, and perhaps a vireo or two, depending on how you define “gray bird.”
Flycatchers tend to have squared off heads, which makes the family easy to identify. And of the flycathcers, all the pewees have a pair of pale white wing bars, while the bars of birds in the genus Empidonax are quite distinctly white. Our bird lacks any wing bars. The Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet lacks wing bars too, but it lives in far-southern Arizona and Texas, not the Pacific Northwest, plus it has dark eyes. Did you notice the lovely yellow eyes on our gray bird?
Vireos are more of green-gray, rather than brown-gray. They tend to have longer bodies, unlike our chunky friend here. Some have a yellow wash on their underside, some wear “spectacles” or have a weak eyebrow, and some have obvious wing bars (or any combination of these traits). Most tellingly, not one has a yellow eye.
Now we’ve narrowed it down to the Wrentit and the Bushtit. Wrentits are found on the Pacific coast almost as far north as the Olympic Peninsula. Since I didn’t tell you where in Washington I was, that could fit our bird. Bushtits found throughout western Washington.
Additionally, both are chunky gray birds lacking distinct markings, and both have yellow eyes. Now what? It’s time for a few subtleties.
Wrentits are more of a grayed brown (emphasis on the brown), while Bushtits are brownish-gray. Also, Wrentits tend to hold their long tails cocked, in the same way wrens do (hence their name). Our bird’s tail, although hard to see behind the shrubbery, is straight out. For comparison, here’s a photo of a Wrentit. (Photo by Jerry Kirkhart.)
At this point, it looks like our bird is a Bushtit. Does it fit the book’s description? Sibley writes, “Combination of tiny size, round body, and overall gray-brown color with stubby bill and long tail distinctive.” I’d say that’s right on the mark.
Have you noticed the eye in the Colorado bird? It’s not yellow! That’s right, the females have a yellow eye, and the males have a dark eye. So the Washington bird is a female, and this Colorado bird is a male.
Bushtits are are social birds, with an entire flock busily moving together through the bushes and trees, searching for insects among the foliage. They keep in touch with a constant high-pitched, buzzy chirping that is instantly recognizable once you’ve heard it.