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Ramphocaenus gnatwrens are small, slender birds, with very long, straight bills – longer than their heads and about the same length as their tarsi! They have short wings and long tails that are are often waggled about in a manner similar to the Polioptila gnatcatchers. Indeed, there are two aspects of Long-billed Gnatwren behavior that are remarked upon more frequently than any other. The first is its seemingly magical ability to forage about while remaining hidden from a human observer. The second is the aforementioned, curious, and distinctive habit of cocking its tail up into an angle roughly perpendicular to its back and waving it about in a very distinctive manner. The manner with which the tail moves gives the impression that it is attached to the body with a flexible spring, moving in reaction to the bird’s movement rather than being moved. This may occur while moving about or while perched and, as of yet, there is apparently no explanation for this behavior.
Long-billed Gnatwren has an extremely large range within the Americas, and is found from southern Mexico, through the lowlands of Middle America, and across much of northern South America. It occurs both east and west of the Andes, with a disjunct population in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil. Most of the upperparts are dull to warm brown, with a largely black tail, a slight pale supercilium, and underparts that vary from nearly white to dull brown or gray. As many as 12 subspecies are generally recognized, based on genetic differentiation and plumage variation. Plumage differences between the races are most prominent on the underparts, with some populations having dark-streaked throats and much warmer-colored across the face, belly, and flanks. For the most part, the Long-billed Gnatwren is not an easy bird to observe, as it tends to stay hidden within dense tangles of vegetation, often well above the ground, and most of its foraging and contact calls are rather soft. Because of this, it can be easily overlooked, and is best located by learning to recognize its rattled, trilling song.
Regarding his experiences with the northern Colombian subspecies, sanctaemarthae, M. A. Carriker, Jr. (1) observed: “The birds keep low down in the forest or open woodland, in tangled undergrowth and masses of vines, and are usually seen in pairs. They have the curious wren-like habit of holding their long tail in a perpendicular position, and twitching it up and down when they utter their weak little chirp.”