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Tropical Gnatcatcher Polioptila plumbea Scientific name definitions

Josep del Hoyo, Nigel Collar, and Guy M. Kirwan
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020
Text last updated November 28, 2017

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Editor's Note: This is a shorter format account, originally published in HBW Alive. Please consider contributing your expertise to update and expand this account.

Taxonomic note: Lump. This account is a combination of multiple species accounts originally published in HBW Alive. That content has been combined and labeled here at the subspecies level. Moving forward we will create a more unified account for this parent taxon. Please consider contributing your expertise to update this account.

The Tropical Gnatcatcher is an energetic, widespread songbird of the neotropics, ranging from Mexico to the Amazon basin.  Found in a wide variety of subtropical and tropical forest types below 1200 meters, this bird can typically be found in constant motion making short hops or flights from branch to leaf to branch searching for insects, cocking its tail up while making soft, whining calls.  Tropical Gnatcatchers are tiny and thin, blue-gray above and white below with a long tail, mostly black with white outer rectrices.  Males have black caps while females have blue-gray caps concolorous with the rest of the upperparts.

Identification

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Polioptila plumbea)

10–12 cm; 4·8–8 g. Bill short and slender, narrowing to fine, slightly hooked tip. Male nominate race has sharply defined glossy black crown extending to eye, nape and sides of neck, sharply contrasting with bluish-grey hindneck, back and rump; remiges blackish, edged grey, tertials edged white (but less pronounced than in P. albiloris); tail black, outer rectrices mostly white with slight black base, amount of white decreases on each succeeding pair of outer rectrices, innermost pair completely black; underparts whitish, tinged grey on breast and sides; iris dark sepia-brown; maxilla blackish, mandible blue-grey with blackish tip; legs black. Female is similar to male, but crown, side of head and nape grey, similar to back in coloration. Juvenile resembles female. Racial differences revolve mostly around facial markings, presence or absence of black on head of female, darkness of overall plumage, and measurements of wing, bill and tail: anteocularis is darker overall than nominate, with slate-grey mantle, wing slightly shorter than tail; daguae has darker, slate-grey back, black cap not extending to lores, which are white, outer rectrices mostly white; <em>plumbiceps</em> is similar to previous but dull grey (not so dark) above, wing slightly longer than tail; innotata has less extensive white edgings on tertials; parvirostris has more extensive black on ear-coverts and lores; <em>atricapilla</em> has whitish cheeks, throat and underparts , female with limited black on ear-coverts; male bilineata has broad white supercilium, white lores, thin black postocular stripe (giving white-faced appearance), female similar but black areas of head replaced by dark grey, black spot at edge of crown behind ear-coverts, both sexes with white underparts; brodkorbi differs from previous in having purer grey (less brownish) upperparts, greyer edgings of remiges, and more extensive white at tips of rectrices 4 and 5, female lacks black spot behind ear-coverts; <em>superciliaris</em> and cinericia are darker than last two, with edges of remiges grey and underparts washed blue-grey.

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Marañon)

12–12·5 cm. Adult is darker bluish grey on upperparts than all races of P. plumbea, male has black cap, lacks white supercilium, female very different from all races of P. plumbea in possessing a steely-black cap with distinct white supercilium (similar to male <em>P. p. bilineata</em> ), and also has a white eyering that is broken posteriorly by black of cap. Juvenile is apparently undescribed.

Systematics History

Editor's Note: This article requires further editing work to merge existing content into the appropriate Subspecies sections. Please bear with us while this update takes place.

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Polioptila plumbea)

In past, occasionally suggested to be conspecific with P. lactea. Hitherto treated as conspecific with P. maior. Remaining races form two groups, i.e. the “bilineata group” (also including superciliaris, brodkorbi and cinericia) and the “plumbea group” (with all other races); both share typical song of a series of more or less identical notes, which tends to reduce the possibility of their representing two species. Relative distributions of nominate race and innotata in E Brazil (roughly from C Pará E to WC Maranhão) unclear; more study needed. Records from E Ecuador and adjacent N Peru (NW Loreto) tentatively referred to race parvirostris; locality of a specimen labelled as this race from W Brazil (C Amazonas) is roughly equidistant from localities represented by innotata, nominate and parvirostris. Original description of cinericia based on comparison with bilineata, rather than with adjacent mainland superciliaris; study needed to clarify if cinericia is a synonym of latter. Eleven subspecies recognized.

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Marañon)

Hitherto treated as conspecific with P. plumbea, but differs in its darker blue-grey upperparts (1); black crown in female (3); very different song, a mixture of typical nasal whining calls with more melodious whistles, having more the aspect of a warble, with fewer repeated notes (ns[2]), slower pace (3) and lower minimum frequency (3), greater number of different notes per phrase (ns[3]) and higher maximum length of notes (ns[3]) (1). Has sometimes been listed as “andina”; this name may indeed refer to this taxon, but maior has priority. Monotypic.

Subspecies


EBIRD GROUP (POLYTYPIC)

Tropical Gnatcatcher (White-browed) Polioptila plumbea [bilineata Group]


SUBSPECIES

Polioptila plumbea brodkorbi Scientific name definitions

Distribution
lowlands of S Mexico (E Veracruz and NE Oaxaca E to E Yucatán Peninsula) S through lowlands of N and C Guatemala and Belize to N Costa Rica.

SUBSPECIES

Polioptila plumbea superciliaris Scientific name definitions

Distribution
lowlands from NC Costa Rica S to S Panama, possibly to N Colombia.

SUBSPECIES

Polioptila plumbea cinericia Scientific name definitions

Distribution
Coiba I, off S Panama.

SUBSPECIES

Polioptila plumbea bilineata Scientific name definitions

Distribution
Caribbean and Pacific coasts of NW Colombia S, W of Andes, to NW Peru (NW La Libertad).

SUBSPECIES

Polioptila plumbea daguae Scientific name definitions

Distribution
upper Cauca Valley (C Valle del Cauca S to CS Cauca), in S Colombia.

EBIRD GROUP (MONOTYPIC)

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Marañon) Polioptila plumbea maior Scientific name definitions

Distribution
Upper Marañón Valley (C Amazonas S through C & E Cajamarca, E Piura and E La Libertad), in NW Peru.

EBIRD GROUP (POLYTYPIC)

Tropical Gnatcatcher (plumbiceps/anteocularis) Polioptila plumbea plumbiceps/anteocularis


SUBSPECIES

Polioptila plumbea anteocularis Scientific name definitions

Distribution
upper Magdalena Valley (Huila), in S Colombia.

SUBSPECIES

Polioptila plumbea plumbiceps Scientific name definitions

Distribution
NE and E Colombia (C La Guajira S in lowlands to CN Boyacá, SC Casanare and C Meta) and Venezuela (including Margarita I).

EBIRD GROUP (MONOTYPIC)

Tropical Gnatcatcher (innotata) Polioptila plumbea innotata Scientific name definitions

Distribution
E Colombia (E Vichada, NE Guainía) E to C Guyana and N Brazil (S to NE Roraima, W Pará, N Tocantins and NC Goiás).

EBIRD GROUP (MONOTYPIC)

Tropical Gnatcatcher (plumbea) Polioptila plumbea plumbea Scientific name definitions

Distribution
Suriname, French Guiana, and N Brazil (C to NW Pará, E and NW Maranhão).

EBIRD GROUP (MONOTYPIC)

Tropical Gnatcatcher (parvirostris) Polioptila plumbea parvirostris Scientific name definitions

Distribution
E of Andes in E Ecuador, N Peru (Loreto S to Madre de Dios (2) ) and NW Brazil.

EBIRD GROUP (MONOTYPIC)

Tropical Gnatcatcher (atricapilla) Polioptila plumbea atricapilla Scientific name definitions

Distribution
(3)NE Brazil (lowlands from C Maranhão E to Ceará and Pernambuco and S to Brasília and NC Minas Gerais).

Distribution

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Marañon)

Upper Marañón Valley (C Amazonas S through C & E Cajamarca, E Piura and E La Libertad), in NW Peru.

Habitat

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Polioptila plumbea)

Found in diverse habitats, including forest edge, overgrown pasture, coffee plantations, mature rainforest, flooded forest, second-growth forest, arid scrub, savanna, and mangroves. In Amazonian Brazil, occurs locally in seasonally flooded white-water (várzea) or black- water (igapó) forest and forest edge with savanna and low campina, but is absent from terra firme. Primary ecoregions occupied by each race include: Isthmian-Atlantic and Isthmian-Pacific moist forests (superciliaris); Isthmian-Pacific moist forests, Isla Coiba (cinericia); Western Ecuador moist forests, Gulf of Guayaquil-Tumbes mangroves, Tumbes-Piura dry forests and Sechura desert (bilineata); Llanos, La Costa xeric shrublands, Maracaibo dry forests and Guajira-Barranquilla xeric scrub (plumbeiceps); Magdalena Valley dry forests (anteocularis); Patia Valley dry forests and Northwestern Andean montane forests (daguae); Guyanan savanna and Guianan moist forests (innotata); Guianan, Tapajós-Xingu, Uatuma-Trombetas and Tocantins/Pindare moist forests (nominate); Ucayali moist forests and Iquitos várzea (parvirostris), Caatinga, Maranhão Babaçu forests, and Cerrado (atricapilla); and Central American dry forests and Isthmian-Atlantic, Central American Atlantic, Petén-Veracruz and Yucatán moist forests (brodkorbi). Mostly below 1000 m.

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Marañon)

Confined to the Marañón dry forests and Peruvian Yungas ecoregion, where it is found over a broad altitudinal range, at 200–2700 m (perhaps especially above 2000 m), mainly in forest edge, second-growth forest and arid scrub.

Migration Overview

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Polioptila plumbea)

Resident.

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Marañon)

Resident.

Diet and Foraging

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Polioptila plumbea)

Feeds on small arthropods and spiders (Araneae). In Venezuela, 55% of prey items obtained from stomach emetic samples were small (less than 5 mm long) beetles (Coleoptera), 24% were ants (Hymenoptera), 10% were insect eggs, pupae or larvae, and 7% were wasps (Hymenoptera); items larger than 5 mm in size comprised 13% of sample in frequency of capture. Actively gleans and hover-gleans from terminal twigs or leaves at various levels, ranging from forest canopy to near ground; avoids dark undergrowth. Regularly follows mixed-species foraging flocks of other insectivorous birds.

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Marañon)

Diet basically unknown, but presumably very similar to that P. plumbea. Actively gleans and hover-gleans from terminal twigs or leaves at various levels, ranging from canopy of low trees to near ground; avoids dark undergrowth. Regularly follows mixed-species foraging flocks of other insectivorous birds.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Polioptila plumbea)

Vocalizations differ geographically; study needed, however, to clarify whether different renderings represent true geographical variation, individual or contextual differences, or merely contrasts in how various authors perceive sounds. Loudsong of race brodkorbi a high, silvery trill, often rippling and descending, 2–3 seconds in duration, “sweet, weet, weet, weet, weet”; also a quiet, scratchy warble, presumably analogous to complex songs given by other gnatcatcher species. Loudsong of bilineata described as a simple, rhythmic descending series of clear, high-pitched notes, “peet, peet, peet peeti peetí, ti’ti’pee, pee pee”, or “seet, weet, weet-weet, weet-pitee, weet-pitee”, usually falling slightly in pitch; call a wheezy “zwhee”. Loudsong of E birds (nominate or parvirostris?) a more evenly pitched, faster and stronger “chichichichichichichi” or “chup-chup-chup”. Frequently calls while foraging, and when approaching or leaving nest, with a nasal mewing “nyaah”, “nyeeah”, “meeah” or “chaaa”, often delivered as rapidly spaced pairs, “meeah-meah”, shorter and buzzier than mew of P. caerulea; in Panama (brodkorbi), call described as “tzeet-tzeet”; plumbiceps gives faint, insect-like chirp. Calls of atricapilla described as frequent, strident “psééeh” or “tsewk” notes, and descending “eet, eet, eet, eet”; song fast , high and somewhat varied, beginning with series of monotonous “glis” notes.

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Marañon)

Song is relatively complex, comprising various mewing whistles, whining noises and wheezing notes, being more like a warble than songs of P. plumbea, involving fewer repeated notes, slower pace and lower minimum frequency, a greater number of different notes per phrase and higher maximum length of notes. Call  a descending wheeze, “zheew”.

Breeding

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Polioptila plumbea)

Breeding reported mid-Mar in Mexico (Veracruz), Feb–Jun in Costa Rica, Mar–Oct in N Colombia, May–Sept in N Venezuela, Feb–Apr in SW Ecuador (after rainy season, but sometimes earlier) and active nest in E Ecuador in late Aug/Sept, and mid-Jul to late Oct in Suriname; second broods probable, but undocumented. Often observed in pairs throughout year, suggesting maintenance of permanent pair-bond. Apparent courtship display described for race anteocularis; male responds to whining calls of female with a soft, steady song given while in erect posture with bill pointed upwards, male turns so as to orient black crown patch towards female. Both sexes involved in construction of nest, a deep cup, walls composed of moss, seed-down and tree bark bound by cobwebs, lined with vegetation and leaf fibres, lichens affixed to outer wall, externally c. 4·5–6 cm across and c. 3·5–7 cm in height, inner cup c. 3–4·5 cm in diameter and 2·5–4 cm deep; placed at heights above ground varying from 0·6 m to 38 m (in SW Ecuador and Costa Rica most nests < 8 m above ground), supported by twigs or branches, often conspicuous. Clutch 2–4 eggs, pale bluish with brown speckles, size 13·7–14·9 mm × 11·6–12·2 mm, laid one per day, usually in morning; incubation by both sexes, female sitting at night, eggs occasionally left uncovered for short periods (c. 2–21 minutes) during morning hours, incubation period 13–14 days; both sexes also brood and feed chicks, which leave nest at 12–14 days; both sexes occasionally perform apparent distraction display when disturbed, flying slowly away while rapidly vibrating wings to entice predators away from nest. In Ecuador, 63% of nests of race bilineata successfully hatched eggs, 73% of eggs hatched and 61% of nestlings fledged.

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Marañon)

Apparently nothing published.

Conservation Status

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Polioptila plumbea)

Not globally threatened (Least Concern). Common and widespread in Panama, Venezuela , Colombia and Suriname. In Ecuador, fairly common to common W of Andes but uncommon and local E of Andes. Fairly common in Caribbean lowlands of Guatemala, uncommon in Petén; common and widespread in Belize. Common in Pacific and Atlantic lowlands of Costa Rica, but scarce or absent in N Guanacaste and most of Nicoya Peninsula. Two races are of potential conservation concern owing to limited distributions in ecoregions considered to be seriously threatened by agriculture, cattle ranching, and logging; these are anteocularis and daguae. No information about status of Coiba I race (cinericia).

Tropical Gnatcatcher (Marañon)

Not globally threatened (Least Concern). Restricted-range species: confined to c. 67,800 km² of Marañón valley EBA, a region of exceptional biological importance. Population unknown but is believed to be declining. Species is of potential conservation concern owing to limited distribution in ecoregion considered to be seriously threatened by agriculture, cattle ranching, and logging.

Distribution of the Tropical Gnatcatcher
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  • Year-round
  • Migration
  • Breeding
  • Non-Breeding
Distribution of the Tropical Gnatcatcher

Recommended Citation

del Hoyo, J., N. Collar, and G. M. Kirwan (2020). Tropical Gnatcatcher (Polioptila plumbea), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, B. K. Keeney, P. G. Rodewald, and T. S. Schulenberg, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.trogna1.01