A holy rite of spring: A Prothonotary Warbler’s visit like no other

by Beverly Mills Gyllenhaal
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All warblers are wonderful to watch, particularly males in the spring. Nature gives them fresh feathers, all the better to snare a mate. For some warblers, spring markings and colors intensify to the point that they look nothing like their normal selves.

My favorite is the Prothonotary Warbler.

Of the 37 species in the Eastern U.S., the male Prothonotary is the only one that glows. His head is a saturated yellow-orange, earning him the nickname “Golden Swamp Warbler.”

Finding a Prothonotary feels like finding that last, hopelessly hidden Easter egg. You have to see it to fully appreciate it, and every time, he takes my breath away.

Yesterday we got lucky. A male in its full spring splendor shot out from under the bridge where Anders and I were standing and headed straight for a bush not 10 feet away and directly in front of us. In the past four years, we’ve seen this bird four times in four states without the lengthy encounter that this little bird gave us.

The visit was a photographer’s delight – perfect late afternoon light and a bird so hungry he foraged out in the open for a good 15 minutes.

To have the best chance of seeing a Prothonotary, head to a large, swampy hardwood forest. Having just arrived from Central and South America, a pair will settle into a cavity, (usually excavated by a woodpecker), and raise two broods before migrating back South in the early fall.

Although only 10 percent of these bottomland hardwood forests have escaped being logged or converted to farms in the U.S., the Prothonotary isn’t unduly threatened. It has a broad breeding range throughout the Southeast to parts of the Midwest. See Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s animated map below for a view of its movements and abundance throughout the year.

Here’s a bird that’s practically holy. It got its name from plumage that resembles the bright yellow robes of papal clerks (prothonotaries) in the Roman Catholic church.

And finding one is a sacred experience: If you’ve been blessed by one, we’d love to hear your tale in the Comments below this post or on our Flying Lessons Facebook page.

Here are the photos from yesterday, along with a few from prior visits, followed by Cornell maps of the species migration through the year: 

 

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1 comment

Liza Bennett May 17, 2020 - 8:16 am

Delightful piece, Bev! Clever and fun. Sadly, I don’t think we get many of these bright little guys up our way.

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