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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: The prairie warbler

Memorial Day was especially nice this year because the weather had been so unpleasant the week prior. It was cold and rainy for days and when I heard the S-word in the forecast (snow that is), I just couldn’t believe it. The entire holiday weekend seemed like it was going to be shot, but then we were saved by Monday. It really was a breath of fresh air.

My cousin and his family came over for a visit and after the hamburgers had been grilled and devoured by the children, it was decided that we should go for a walk. These were little kids (4 and 6) so even a simple walk through the trails in my meadow would probably seem like an epic trek to them. So off we went, looking for adventure.

Along the way we came to an area that was filling in with young regeneration. In one section of my property, my neighbor’s 6-acre field abuts my thickets along a dramatically straight boundary line. It reminds me of the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic with his field representing Haiti. He has bluebirds and possibly even a bobolink this year, whereas I have towhees, catbirds and a variety of warblers.

And it was a warbler that caught my ear as we walked along the trail. I could just barely hear it and, at first, I thought it might be a prairie warbler, but a few repetitions of the song and I realized that it was a blue-winged warbler. Both have such high-pitched songs that … what’s that? You’ve never heard of a prairie warbler before? Well that’s odd. I got some amazing pictures of a prairie warbler a couple years ago and I simply can’t believe that I haven’t shared them with you. Hmmm, let me check my records.

Well I’ll be hornswoggled! How the heck did that happen? Here I have these amazing photos for this long and I haven’t used them yet? That means that at some point I sat here beating my brains out trying to come up with a new idea for a column and I was sitting on a gold mine this whole time?! Now I have to tell this story.

It was May 31, 2009, and I was out at a local natural area looking for birds. The main habitat I was in was filled with brushy oak regeneration that was growing in after some logging had been done. As I look through my journal for 2009, I see that the weather had been cold the week before. And I see here that the very next day — June 1, 2009 — the low temperature dipped down to 36 degrees. I guess chilly days in May aren’t as unusual as they seem to feel.

Anyway, my brother-in-law had come to my house for the Memorial Day weekend that year and we had visited this same natural area to go for a walk with his family. While we made our way through the trails, I heard a prairie warbler singing and my journal seems to suggest that I returned to the same area the following weekend to see if I could spot the singing male.

I was fully committed to the process and I had waded into the thick growth of oak saplings in the hopes of getting close to the little bird. There is a slip of white lined paper that I tore out of a memo pad and glued to the page in my journal that reads, “I’m waiting for the prairie warbler to return to his singing perch. I got a few shots, but the weather is touch-and-go and it’s 1:30 in the afternoon. I know he’s in here, but Nikonus and Iso will make me wait. There he is!! Off to my left.”

Well, to make a long story short, I put in the time AND I got lucky. This male was preoccupied with singing and feeding and, after being a bit shy for a while, I guess he decided that I didn’t mean any harm. Warblers are often like that and I had a similar experience with prothonotary warblers in Arkansas in 1996. But that’s a different story for a different time.

As the little male moved around, I was quite surprised to see that he had been banded. Either someone was doing some seasonal mist netting or someone was doing some targeted research on prairie warblers, but this little guy had definitely been handled. None the worse for wear, he seemed as healthy as an ox and he didn’t have any lasting fear of humans because he allowed me to follow him around for over an hour.

The best moment of the entire experience was when he managed to capture one of those little green caterpillars that fill the forests of our region in the spring. After grabbing it, he actually flew toward me and stopped for just a moment as if he wanted this moment documented on film. That was the reward for waiting. Nikonus and Iso were finally merciful.

The prairie warbler (Dendroica discolor) is one of those striking little birds of our local landscape that you just never seem to see up close. The male is covered in all sorts of yellow tones, but the area around the face is truly beautiful. Jet black racing stripes against a background of brilliant yellow feathers make him one of the real lookers of the warbler world. On his back he wears olive green feathers with several vertical stripes of deep red, as though someone painted them on with single strokes from a paintbrush. Females have the same basic color scheme, just more muted and subdued.

There are many sources for information on birds and their habits, but one of my favorites is my trusty old copy of “The Birder’s Handbook.” It doesn’t have any pictures, but it is packed with useful information about nesting, clutch size and so forth. I see here that prairie warblers are partial to dry, brushy clearings, forest margins and pine barrens. That explains why I used to see prairie warblers in the power line cuts at the Holyoke Range State Park when I worked there as a naturalist. I never could get a photo, but I always heard them singing.

The song of a prairie warbler is unusual in the sense that it could almost be mistaken for the sound of an insect. A soft, high-pitched, dry buzz that ascends in tone before it tops off and descends almost back to where it started. It’s not easy to hear from a distance, but it is something special when you finally do hear it.

A mated pair will build a nest in just a few days after the female selects the site. The nest is usually tucked into the fork of a bush no more than 10 feet off the ground and, once complete, the female will lay three to five small white eggs marked with dark-brown spots. The standard two-week incubation period of the warblers is observed by this species, as is the pure-insect diet, but there is one interesting point of fact about prairie warblers. The chicks are exclusively fed caterpillars like the one my little male captured. Perhaps he was so busy feeding young that he didn’t have time to care about me tagging along too much.

I just checked the long-range forecast and the weather for this upcoming weekend is actually supposed to be pretty outstanding. This is the height of the nesting season for the migratory birds that came so far to breed in our area, so if there is any chance that you can get outside with a pair of binoculars, I would definitely do it. I myself intend to spend every hour of daylight out with my camera and searching for birds. At night, I plan on searching through my archives to determine what other gems I may have forgotten about.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder, except for the first Thursday of each month, which is when his Kids and Critters column for young readers appears. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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