Swamp warbler serendipity

Unexpected sighting caps journey through Central Illinois bottomlands

Wood-warblers are indeed the epitome of spring migration. Some warblers are just passing through—36 species in all—but some are sticking around to nest. That’s the case with the Prothonotary Warbler, the golden jewel of wooded swamps.

This week I took a journey south to Springfield for my second Moderna jab. Wednesdays are about the only day of the week I’ve been free since February due to family commitments. So I make the most of any trip I take.

That’s what brought me to a tangled bottomland of the Sangamon River, just north of Springfield. There I met Jarod Hitchings, who’s been making Prothonotary Warbler nesting boxes out of orange juice cartons during the past year. He and other volunteers have hung them in wooded swamps from Allerton Park near Monticello to Beaver Dam State Park near Carlinville. They’ve hung more than 270 in all, and it’s quite an inspiration to learn of all that’s being done to assist a species whose numbers are declining.

Jarod and I heard a Prothonotary sing soon after arriving. We looked and looked in hopes of seeing one, but they just didn’t show up. I thanked Jarod for his time and promised to follow up once I had enough material for a story, and, ideally, a photo of a Prothonotary. I hit the road back to Chicago.

But one of the things about birding that’s great is the unexpected. The best experiences to me are those that are unexpected and serendipitous. On the way north I thought I’d stop to bird in Woodford County to add it to my county list. I picked out a spot on the map called Woodford County State Fish and Wildlife Area. When I arrived I was dazzled by a Red-headed Woodpecker and a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The thought of a Prothonotary Warbler had drifted far from my mind. These were wet woods, but they seemed a far cry from the density of the spot Jarod showed me. A warbler sang in the distance, and I wrote it off as a fairly common Palm or even Yellow-rumped.

I’ll never forget what happened next. The singing warbler came closer and closer, making its way through the snags and treefall until it landed right over my head to examine an old woodpecker hole. It was so close I couldn’t turn my camera and tripod adequately to get a photo of it. And yes it was most certainly the legendary golden swamp warbler itself, finding a haven in the flooded woods on the periphery of the broad waters of the Illinois River. Its gorgeous yellow standing out amid the gray trees and early spring vegetation. It arrived as if it was coming over to say ‘hello.’

That was the only warbler I’d find among the 23 species I identified in Woodford County. And I did re-position myself in time to get some photos and video. The Prothonotary was making its way around several acres, checking out potential nest holes and singing brilliantly. It was just my third Prothonotary ever in Illinois.

Now that I have some visuals—thanks to a uniquely fortuitous experience—I look forward to sharing a longer piece about Prothonotaries and Jarod’s work very, very soon.

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