Warbler Watching

The real jewel of my disease-ridden woodlot is the prothonotary warbler … The flash of his gold-and-blue plumage amid the dank decay of the June woods is in itself proof that dead trees are transmuted into living animals, and vice versa.

~Aldo Leopold

This final post on our recent swamp trip is about one of spring’s most enjoyable wildlife experiences, the return of the warblers. As my high frequency hearing has waned, I rely more and more on Melissa’s abilities to hear their songs and locate them. And on this trip, she was hearing them throughout our paddle. And she had her spotting skills in high gear as she came up finding what I thought were the trip highlights – a swimming Mink, two Barred Owls close enough to photograph, some cute Raccoons, the flying squirrel, and a few nesting birds. My challenge was to try to photograph them.  And I find warblers to be a particularly challenging subject.

bad warbler shot

My usual warbler image, mostly of where one used to be – note tail feathers exiting top left of image (click photos to enlarge)

But this trip had waves of warblers moving through the swamp at times. On our second platform at Three Sisters, we had birds all around us our last morning, including a swarm of migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers. The rather drab colors we see on this species in winter have now been replaced by bold black and white and intensified yellows. A throng of butter-butts came though our camp that morning, but most were either obscured in the thick understory brush or high in the tree tops, foraging on insects.

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler showing off its spring attire

Melissa heard and then found a Prairie Warbler just off our platform and I finally managed a few pictures in the dappled sunlight.

Prairie warbler

Prairie Warbler skulking through the brush

Northern parula warbler

Northern Parula Warblers were everywhere in the swamp, but difficult to photograph on this trip

It turns out, the real photographic test was shooting warblers from a moving canoe. I had my 300 mm telephoto and 1.4x teleconverter on my older camera body with us. Needless to say, I was trying to be careful with the gear and, when paddling, often had it secured in a dry bag in front of me. When we saw something, I would have to open the bag, pull out the camera and then try to shoot from a wobbly canoe (usually in a current) while Melissa positioned us. For some shots, I carefully passed the gear up to her if we could not get the back of the canoe into position. Prothonotary Warblers were singing and displaying all along our route, but when she spotted one carrying nesting material, we pulled over and steadied the canoe on a log in the shallows. The bird did not disappoint.

Prothonotary warbler gathring moss on nearby tree

This bird really liked the moss on one particular tree trunk and made several trips to gather a beak full while we watched.

Prothonotary warbler with moss in bill

Most trips back to the nest were quick, with a brief landing, and then darting directly into the cavity. On this one though, he (I think it is a he because it is very brightly colored) paused on top of the snag for just a moment.

Prothonotary wwarbler head stickig out nest cavity

After depositing the moss, he would come out, look around, and then fly off for more. This time, he stuck his head out far enough so that the sun highlighted his face.

Prothonotary warbler gathring moss on cavity tree

On one exit, he noticed a little piece of moss just below the cavity

Prothonotary warbler gathring moss on cavity tree 1

My favorite pose

Male prothonotaries arrive first on the breeding grounds and begin setting up territories which they defend. They will select a few choice nesting cavities (and the swamp is full of potential nest holes) and gather and stuff them with moss, hoping a female will approve. We wished him good luck, and moved on as this was a big paddle day for us.

The current was stong and the wind was at our back out on the river proper when Melissa saw what she at first thought was a Northern Parula exiting a clump of Spanish Moss dangling on a low branch over the river (their preferred nest site). We turned and started paddling back upstream when she saw the bird return – it was a Yellow-throated Warbler!

Yellow-throated warbler at nest in Spanish moss

A Yellow-throated Warbler bringing material back to its nest site in a clump of Spanish Moss

This beautiful warbler is one of Melissa’s favorites, but frustratingly so, since they tend to be treetop dwellers and, though she hears them often (even at our woodland home in Chatham County), we rarely get a decent look at one. And here she finds one nesting, and down low. Cornell’s excellent online Birds of the World resource (for a subscription fee, but well worth it), states It nests and performs most of its daily activities high in the canopy of these forests. The exact location of nests is usually hard to determine.

Yellow-throated warbler at nest in Spanish moss closer view

Melissa did a great job keeping the canoe in place while the bird came and went with nesting materials

Yellow-throated warbler looking at us

A good view of that brilliant yellow throat that gives this warbler its common name

Yellow-throated warbler just going into nest

Entering the entrance hole in the Spanish Moss with nesting material (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Yellow-throated warbler coming out of nest jusy head

Peeking out of the nest entrance (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Yellow-throated warbler coming out of nest

Our final look at an extraordinary bird

Research shows they usually nest out on horizontal branches high in the canopy in mature forests. In coastal areas with Spanish Moss, they prefer to nest in clumps hanging below branches (like Northern Parulas). But the nests of Yellow-throated Warblers tend to be an average of 30-45 feet above ground in coastal swamps. I’d say we were pretty lucky to find this one at about eye level from our canoe. As it turned out, we didn’t have a decent look at another of these beauties on our entire trip. So, thanks for a special moment in a very special place.

 

16 thoughts on “Warbler Watching

  1. Always a good day when there is a new post, and your Alligator River experiences have been magical. Thank you for sharing the joy!

  2. These awesome warbler photographs have put a permanent smile on my face this morning! They are so sweet and so busy! You and Melissa make a great team!

  3. Wow what a trip! Mitch and I were supposed to paddle the black river at the beginning of April. Was really disappointed when it was cancelled! I have prothonotary warblers in Atlantic that come to my bird bath. They are so beautiful and heard a parula on the tar river. Possibly heard a hooded warbler in Allen departs gardens just south of Louisburg. Lol even though I am a singer I find it really hard to recognize their calls. calls. So glad y’all had fun. Ferne

  4. The pics of the Yellow-throated Warbler make me feel like he invited me to sit on his porch w/ a cup of tea while he worked – so intimate!
    Thanks for the bright spot,

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