Not all that meows is necessarily a cat – gray catbirds have a distinctive mew-like call that can confuse novices, but alerts more experienced birders that one of these energetic thrushes is nearby. While these birds are far more common in the eastern United States, northern Utah and Utah County are on the extreme western edge of this bird's breeding range, and birders can often find catbirds in Provo Canyon, if they know what to look for and where to watch for it.
The gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) is a slender thrush-like bird with allover slate gray plumage. A clear black cap is visible on the bird's head, and the undertail coverts are a rusty red-brown color. The tail and wingtips are also dark, and the dark eyes can appear quite large in the face. The tail is long, and at a glance even when field marks aren't clear, these birds have the overall shape of a skinny robin. In Utah, where these birds are relatively scarce, they are generally shy and may stay hidden in shrubs and underbrush.
In mid- to late summer, gray catbirds are more active as young birds are out of the nest and emulating their parents, busily foraging away as they prepare for migration. This gives birders a great opportunity to see these thrushes, and in Utah County, the stretch of Provo Canyon from Vivian Park west to Bridal Veil Falls can be a gray catbird hotspot. Starting at Vivian Park, birders should carefully travel along the Provo River Parkway – the trail connecting parks in the canyon – watching for slim thrushes alongside the trail and lurking in trailside brush. If possible, listening for the birds' distinctive mew can also provide a clue to their presence, but take care not to approach too closely – these birds will quickly disappear into thicker brush if they feel threatened.
The trail is ideal for both hiking and biking; bikers may have a better opportunity to see the birds by coming around corners before they flit away, but ride carefully and follow appropriate trial etiquette when sharing with walkers and joggers. Early to mid-morning is the best time to spot catbirds, when temperatures are cooler and the birds are more active, but they can be seen throughout the day. But don't wait too long – these birds begin migrating by mid-August and are completely absent by the end of September, and won't return until May.
Learn more about the gray catbird!