Pursuing the Prothonotary

My spring break trip to South Florida was a fantastic success. I saw just about everything I went looking for, including a number of brand new lifers and some creatures I haven’t seen in far too long. There was one species, however, that I just couldn’t connect with. The Prothonotary Warbler is a common breeder in swamps and wet forests throughout the southeastern United States, and it is a frequently observed migrant in Florida. Indeed, multiple individuals were reported from the Keys, the Dry Tortugas, the Everglades, and the Miami area during the timeframe I was present. For some reason, I always seemed to miss them. This is not a bird I needed to add to my life list, as I have heard them in the past. Breeding Prothos at Cape May’s Beaver Swamp are all but a sure thing during the World Series of Birding. That being said, the fast-paced nature of the competition meant that we had to listen briefly and continue on when my team stopped to add the bird to our Big Day total. As a result, I had never actually seen this species with my own eyes. I certainly wanted to, because this living drop of sunshine is brilliant even by the high standards of the wood-warbler clan. It shouldn’t have been so difficult, but I somehow failed to pin one down during the entirety of my Florida trip. One of my photos of a flyover migrant that passed the Yankee Freedom III on my way out to Garden Key looked promising for a passing Prothonotary when I lightened up the image later, but that’s hardly an enjoyable way to score a visual lifer. The saga continued.

As if to add insult to injury, New York enjoyed a mini-invasion of these golden birds while I was down in the Sunshine State. Even though the vast majority of the species breeds south of Long Island, northbound migrants occasionally overshoot their destination in the spring. The first individual turned up at the Salt Marsh Nature Center in Brooklyn, where it spent several days delighting local birders. The warbler’s unusual choice of location resulted in a singularly unique situation involving some of the resident mollusks, but fortunately the harrowing tale came to a happy ending. Another Prothonotary turned up at the Lido Beach Passive Nature Area, and a third was discovered at Southards Pond Park in Babylon. As my time in Florida drew to a close, I turned my thoughts to the hope that these overambitious travelers would stick around for me to see. By the time I returned home, the closest and most convenient individual, at Lido Beach, was the only one still being reported.

Wednesday was a relatively straightforward day at work, with teachers and students alike slowly easing back into the routines of the weekly schedule. Once classes were over, I decided to head down to the coast to search for my quarry. I had to fight my way through the rush hour traffic to reach the beach, but it was well worth the effort. The stunning songbird appeared before me almost as soon as I stepped out of my car. It was that easy.

After years of getting the runaround from this species, my evening encounter with the Prothonotary Warbler was an up close and personal introduction. The bird was foraging actively without any fear of myself or the other birders present, and it thrice flew directly at my head before veering off to perch in the nearby shrubberies. At one point I actually had to step back and zoom out so my camera could focus on the friendly little warbler as it hopped about the branches in front of my face. I wish all birds could be this cooperative! Needless to say, the long-awaited visual lifer lived up to my high expectations. It was almost as if I was meeting a brand new bird for the first time.

Dad was a bit jealous of my pictures and stories, so we returned to Lido the following afternoon for another attempt. The bird was just as confiding and close as before, providing great views for my father’s first ever encounter with the species. Its shining yellow feathers looked gorgeous in the light of the setting sun, a warm reminder that spring migration has finally reached our home state. The restless flocks of Brant lingering in the area and the newly arrived Snowy Egrets and Glossy Ibises in the marshes down the road provided more evidence of the changing seasons. I got an early start to my spring migration merriment during my time down south, but it’s that much more meaningful to see things happening in your own neck of the woods. It was a real pleasure to add the Prothonotary Warbler to my state and county lists while finally checking it as a visual lifer. Gotta enjoy the little things!

Year List Update, April 20 – 250 Species (+ Prothonotary Warbler, Glossy Ibis)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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