By Chris Murray, Travis Audubon Land Manager
Sunday morning I got a text from Shirley and David LaVergne which read ‘bird 911.’ I gave them a call back and they told me about their discovery of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher caught in the web of a Lichen Orb Weaver, which was bad enough, but it was also suspended about 30 feet off the ground between a Cedar Elm and an Ashe Juniper. My wife Julie and I found a long piece, about 12 feet, of PVC in the barn and attached a fishing net to the end before meeting Shirley and David on the trail. After consultation it was decided the best course of action was for me to climb the Cedar Elm with the net contraption and try to get the bird from there.
I clambered up the tree and, with some jockeying about, managed to get in a position where I could extend the net pole while hanging onto a Cedar Elm branch and scoop up the bird, the large spider coming along for the ride. Once the bird was safely in the net, I climbed down and handed it to Julie, who was waiting on the ground. The gnatcatcher appeared to be a hatch year and the spider’s silk was tightly wrapped about its legs, wings, and head. At first we thought it was dead but it stirred a bit and partially opened one eye to check us out. We decided to take it back to the house where Julie could work on it with some tweezers in good light and also afford it the opportunity to cool off a bit.
My eldest son Braeden met us in the kitchen and he prepared a mixture of sugar water to give the gnatcatcher as I held the bird and Julie carefully disentangled the surprisingly strong silk, a process which took about ten minutes. Several times we thought that maybe the bird had died but it perked up when Julie got the silk off the bird’s head and it was able to drink some of the sugar water. Once it was thoroughly cleansed of the offending web, the gnatcatcher was placed in a box and returned to where we had caught it, placing it on a log low to the ground and in the shade. We backed off a bit to observe the bird and soon we were joined by another Blue-gray Gnatcatcher who sat up in the trees, seemingly giving encouragement in its faint, wheezy voice. After about five minutes, the rescued gnatcatcher began to preen with a passion and shortly afterwards flew to a low perch, preened some more, and then flew into the canopy to join the other gnatcatcher.
Many thanks to Shirley and David LaVergne, whose keen observation made it all possible. I asked Shirley how she found it and she said that Laurie Foss always said that if you hear chickadees and titmice making a commotion, look around and try to figure out why, and that’s exactly what she did!