I recall a brief greeting several years ago in an exchange one spring afternoon beside a boardwalk.
“The prothonotary has returned!” he said.
But as I stepped onto the wooden-planked path looping the lake at our local nature center, the excitement this announcer had hoped to read on my face as he joyfully told me of his discovery was clearly absent.
I didn’t know this bird and, although I might have been able to conjure up a vague image in my mind from browsing the plates of warblers in my field guide, the proclamation of its presence there meant little…to me.
Years later, I would learn this bird while walking one summer afternoon on another wetland boardwalk, deeply shaded and winding between tall swamp cottonwood trees that stood in several inches of water.
Ebony Jewelwing damselfly, male
A ringing call had stolen my attention from the black-winged damselflies that were knitting up the frayed edges of a patch of sunlight--a brief, bright spot in the darkened, wet woods. The song's source had eluded me, though, for quite some time, as I stood peering past the thick, leafy cover where a small bird restlessly flitted, low to the ground, foraging close to the water’s edge.
Eventually, I matched both sound and sight to the boldly yellow-colored warbler in my field guide--the Prothonotary.
An afternoon’s shelter from the strong light and heat of July and my pursuit of ebony jewelwings had given me a life bird, time to stand and watch it work this wetland habitat, time to soak in the rich sound as it spread across the water, golden as the bird from which it flowed.
For the remainder of that summer, I found prothonotary warblers everywhere.
From beside every lake that I canoed,
every quiet river that I kayaked,
every river-rimmed trail that I hiked, I found the song and it followed me--and often, gave a glimpse of the golden bird--until I knew it well and understood the joy of finding its return.
Meadow of Siebenthaler Fen
This summer I walked again on the wetland boardwalk where I’d first found my prothonotary warbler, though this time it was butterflies that were on my mind—Baltimore Checkerspots.
In the sunny meadow, a handful of the uncommon flutterbys skipped, barely stopping to nectar before whisking past and out of camera range.
Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly
Pleased that I’d timed my visit to find them flying, yet discouraged that in their flying, I saw so very little of them, I wandered slowly back along the boardwalk to the point where it passed into the darkened cottonwood swamp once again.
A small flock of cedar waxwings crossed the cattail marsh and landed just overhead, lining up shoulder-to-shoulder on the graceful branches of several small willows. Dragonflies paused in the sunshine of the wooden boards, then rose to course above its sedge-filled edges and tall reeds just out of reach of 2 green frogs sitting neck-deep and motionless in the cool water of the fen. Their watchful eye, for this moment, had turned to the northern water snake gliding silently behind them.
Yes, everything about this picture of a still, wooded wetland should suggest a prothonotary warbler. And, if the mangrove forests of coastal Central and South America had sustained him for the winter, the bird I found last year would be back to breed here once more.
Through the darkened woods, across the water that stretched between the cottonwood trees, came the resounding call—clear and bright as the little bird behind it. And, in knowing the bird, hearing his song as I’d heard it before in the very same spot along the trail, my heart made just a little extra beat.
No one felt it but me.
“The prothonotary had returned!”
Prothonotary Warbler, Protonaria citrea
The Prothonotary Warbler, Protonaria citrea, breeds in hardwood swamps and forested lakeshores of the southeastern United States and is named for the scribes (prothonotaries) in the Roman Catholic Church who wore golden, hooded robes. Dubbed the Golden Swamp Warbler by John James Audubon, it is the only eastern warbler to nest in tree cavities, often using the excavated holes of Downy Woodpeckers and building mossy nests in trees near or over standing water. Adults forage in low foliage for aquatic insects, snails, flies, beetles and spiders. Because the prothonotary warbler is extremely habitat specific, habitat loss (wooded wetlands in the southeastern US and mangrove swamps of Latin America) may cause this species to decline.
No matter where you might be on the birding curve—whether you’ve learned the prothonotary’s ringing call or have never even heard of such a bird, whether you’ve mastered all the species’ migration routes or are still fumbling to find the focus wheel of your binoculars—the Midwest Birding Symposium has something in it for YOU!
There’s no better way to improve your skills, than to put yourself smack in the middle of a bunch of better birders—experts who are passionate about sharing something they love with another and super-nice folks who fondly remember exactly where they were when someone showed them their first life birds.
It’s not too late to get registered.
You’ll be surprised how much fun birds and birders can be!
I’d love to see you there!
Winning image for the Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp competition!
The 2012 OWLStamp will be available for sale March 1, 2012 through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website and nature organizations across the state. Proceeds of the OWLStamp benefit wildlife conservation, research & education projects within the state of Ohio! I'm thrilled to have provided the winning image for such a wonderful program!
The Adventures of Red Canoe
Come along in Red Canoe as she explores the quiet backwater of Ohio's State Parks and the scenic streams and rivers of the Midwest. Discover the beauty hidden beyond the water's edge, quietly waiting, past access points, often only inches deep!
Grabbing every minute I can find to be outside--walking in it, sleeping in it ... breathing it in. The natural world has so much beauty to uncover.
It is my hope that by capturing my experiences with nature and by sharing the richness it adds to an ordinary life, others may discover the greatest gift waiting just outside their door.
A regularly appearing feature, "Have you seen..." takes a closer, more patient look at things usually not seen in a flattering light.Take a look!
The Sweetness of Spring
Each spring, as winter lessens its grip and days warm with the first fragrant breezes of a new season, we collect sap from our Sugar Maples and produce just enough syrup for ourselves for the coming year. The progress of this year's backyard endeavor is illustrated here.
A Bird's Life
Summer 2008, the tiny jewel of the avian world, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, nested just feet from my front door. Pictures of her nest and the changing lives within are collected in thisjournal.From life the size of a pea....