Sunday, May 11, 2008

Prothonotary Warbler Down the Great River Road

On Thursday, on the first leg of our journey to pick up my daughter from college in Ohio, Dave and I drove south down the Great River Road through the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge from far southeastern Minnesota into northeastern Iowa. We were looking for areas where the river spills over and floods woodlands -- the ideal habitat for the prothonotary warbler, whose breeding range finds its northwesternmost point, and its only Minnesota location, along this area of the Mississippi. (That's what the range maps in two of my bird guides indicate, at least, though the map on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology page linked to above shows the Minnesota range extending farther west across the southern part of the state.) We saw miles of the right kind of swampy habitat in the NWR and found easy access to a suitable spot for observation (above) just off the highway, where a road to a boat launch was closed after a few hundred feet due to high water.

We encouraged a visit from this brilliant yellow warbler by playing its call from a CD of birdcalls for a few minutes. We were rewarded within moments by a responding call from the trees and, soon thereafter, by a personal visit from the territorial male coming to challenge the supposed intruder. This was the first prothonotary warbler I had seen -- a life bird, as they say. I missed a great shot when the stunning little bird appeared against a dark tree trunk, but did catch this not-so-distinct photo (above, cropped close in, and below, less zoomed in) from which you can see the intense orange-yellow of the head and breast of this lovely bird. (Click on any of the photos for greater detail.)

We did not want to over-agitate the warbler, so we turned off the CD as soon as we had had the chance to see the bird for a couple of minutes. While on this little stake-out, we also saw and heard many other birds, including woodpeckers, a black-throated blue warbler and plenty of yellow-rumped warblers like the one below.

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We were lucky that our trip wasn't later or that this year's late spring hadn't come earlier, since the trees were just starting to leaf out. Another couple of weeks of leaf growth and it's unlikely we would have been able to see these birds at all. As we drove further south and east, as far south as Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, spring advanced until we were seeing trees almost fully leafed out and lilacs and many other flowering shrubs and trees in bloom.


Rob Hardy said...

Cool. I saw a large, mostly yellow warbler in the Arb, which I classified as a mourningnashvilleconnecticut warbler, otherwise known, à la Roger Tory Peterson, as a "confusing spring warbler."

Penelope said...

Great names, both of them.