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.
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.
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 The rather drab colors we see on this species in winter have now been replaced by bold black and white and intensified yellows.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.
Melissa heard and then found a Prairie Warbler just off our platform and I finally managed a few pictures in the dappled sunlight.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Finding and photographing the warblers must have been quite wonderful. I sure enjoyed them vicariously!
Thanks, Kathy. Yes, it was, as they are often so tough to see clearly (well, Prothonotaries are often quite cooperative since they tend to sing and forage lower).
Always a good day when there is a new post, and your Alligator River experiences have been magical. Thank you for sharing the joy!
Thanks, Ann…Roanoke River…would love to paddle the upper portions of Alligator River soon.
That Yellow-throated! Wow! Thanks, guys.
Thanks, Rick. Hope you are doing well and seeing lot of birds.
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!
Thanks, Mary Kay.
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
Thanks, Ferne. Unfortunately, I can’t hear most of the high frequency calls anymore unless they are close.
Man, that was quite the paddle! Wonderful photos and enjoyed the commentary. You all make a great team!
How did the prothonatary warbler get it’s name
According to several online sources, prothonotary refers to the bright yellow robes worn by papal clerks, known as prothonotaries, in the Roman Catholic church.
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,
Thanks, Nancy. It was a bit more challenging at the time, especially trying to keep the canoe in place against the current!