Bay Journal

Prothonotary warbler wish comes true thanks to magic of others

  • By Michael Burke on July 04, 2013
A prothonotary warbler peers out from a cavity in a bald cypress. It is the only Eastern wood warbler to use a cavity for its nest. 
 (Photo by Mark Musselman /U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ) Prothonotary warblers got their name because their bright yellow plumage resembles the bright yellow robes of early Roman Catholic church officials called prothonotaries. Photo by  (Mark Musselman / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
)

After a leisurely paddle up one of the Nanticoke River's inviting tributaries, we let the breeze and current push our kayaks along and basked in the dappled sunlight as willows, river birches, oaks and loblolly pines arched over us.

This tidal stream, just south of the Delaware State line near Riverton, MD, was one of the most pristine in the entire Chesapeake Basin. We had seen river otters earlier on the trip. A series of turtles, sunning themselves on exposed logs in the river, had plopped into the water as our kayaks advanced. Bird song and the rustle of reeds and leaves were our constant companions.

The tide left us in a stand of pickerel weed. Pat's kayak was just inches away, and I whispered to her, "This is heaven." She answered, "The only things that are missing are the warblers." As if on cue, a stunning bird popped out on an exposed limb to investigate our presence. We tossed each other big grins and swung our binoculars into place.

The conjured warbler had an entirely yellow head, neck and breast with a longish black bill and a coal black eye. He wore a mantle of mossy green across his shoulders and back. His wings were blue-gray and so was his short tail, which was marked by large white spots.

The prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) is a relatively large warbler with a big head atop a handsome body. The wingspan is almost 9 inches. The female is nearly as colorful. Her greenish-brown back extends up the nape and to the rear of the bird's crown. She still has plenty of that lemon-yellow coloring and those contrasting blue-gray wings.

The difficult first name of this bird comes from the early Roman Catholic Church. Back then, prothonotaries were the 12 officials who could notarize authentic papal proceedings or documents. The officials wore bright yellow robes, corresponding to the bright yellow of the eponymous bird. Today, the term still exists in secular jurisprudence. In a handful of states such as Pennsylvania and Delaware, a prothonotary is the chief clerk of the courts.

Prothonotary warblers are not especially rare, but you won't find them unless you are looking in their specialized habitat. As our experience proved, they love pristine wetlands along protected rivers.

Prothonotaries winter in Southern Mexico and throughout much of Central America and the Caribbean. Each spring, they migrate into the wooded swamps of the United States, from the Gulf States up to the Midwest and mid-Atlantic, including a large segment of the Chesapeake watershed.

They look for large wooded tracts, often dominated by willows, sweetgum, bald cypress, river birches and the like. In all cases, the birds look for nesting sites over water.

The prothonotary is the only Eastern wood warbler to use a cavity, natural or artificial, for its nest. In a typical case, a male prothonotary will find an abandoned woodpecker hole. He lines the bottom with moss and invites the female to inspect his work. If she is satisfied, she will take over the nest construction. She will lay three to seven eggs and incubate them for up to 14 days. Just nine to 10 days later the chicks are ready to leave the nest. This gives the adults ample time to raise a second, and sometimes even a third, brood in the same season.

The birds are excellent foragers, eating insects, beetles, spiders and the like. In swamps, they also take small mollusks and crustaceans. These foods are rich in protein and fats, key elements in migratory birds' diet.

The bird we were watching didn't seem to be interested in eating. He danced about from side to side on the limb of an oak. All the while, he kept an eye on us. He wasn't concerned, just exercising some caution along with his curiosity. His boldness provided us with an excellent opportunity to inspect his every detail.

Having satisfied his curiosity, the warbler flicked his tail and disappeared back into the safety of the forest.

Thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Conservation Fund, two new tracts on the Nanticoke had recently been preserved. These large patches were added to the impressive inventory of preserved lands adjoining the river. Such efforts are essential if prothonotaries are to continue gracing our wetlands. The bird's highly specialized habitat needs are under continuing pressure from developers both here and on their wintering grounds.

Rarely in life does wishing make it so, and maybe that was the case here, too. Perhaps my wife's wish was based more on subconscious processing of subtle field data than the magical power it seemed to possess. Our wish had come true.

Rather than credit luck, though, I realized we owed our thanks to the real magicians, the oft-maligned government bureaucrats and their partners in the conservation movement.

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About Michael Burke

Mike Burke is an amateur naturalist who lives in Cheverly, MD.

Read more articles by Michael Burke

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