In pursuit of prothonotary warblers

Paddling through flooded forest, I find one of my favorite birds.




7 minute read

Habitual habitat. (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

The high waters of May are receding now. The floodplain islands are half submerged, half above water. Where the ground is visible, it is wet and muddy, still saturated, as the lands dried by last summer’s drought are drinking their fill. It will bring new life back to these amphibious archipelagos.

It seems like the perfect day to look for prothonotary warblers. It’s prime time for breeding season, so the birds should be in their likely haunts, and singing loudly to lay claim. The remaining high water will let me paddle right into the islands where they live. I also feel a little like celebrating, and communing with the St. Croix.

It’s not long before I hear the first prothonotary. From somewhere deep in the forest comes the sharp, crescendoing “tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet.” I put my paddle down and pick up my camera, drift between silver maple tree trunks, the kayak gently bumping against them at times. I can’t get back to where the bird is, but I’ve found they often move around a small territory, and I might get lucky and see one as it crosses my field of vision.

Luck is not in my corner today. The bird remains hidden, and after a while I paddle on.

I don’t make it another 100 yards before hearing another bird, but it’s the same story. This one sounds closer, but is invisible in the leafed-out tree branches. Again I’m finally forced to give up and keep moving.

Crossing a wide channel between islands, a breeze blows from upstream. It ruffles the heavy leaves on the maples, full of water and photosynthesis, pulling branches down. The white fluffy seeds from cottonwood trees drift through their air, thick at times, covering great distances on the air currents, maybe one will land on a good spot to grow.

Finally, I hear another bird singing from a stand of trees where I’ve seen them before. “Third time’s the charm,” I say to no one. I spend at least 30 minutes in a little pocket of water where I know a prothonotary is flitting around me, sometimes seeming to be right in front of my eyes, but always just out of sight.

It can be frustrating. I probably want a photograph too much. But when I let go of that goal, I’m happy to be here, on this river, on this day, and remember the bird is a bonus. All my other thoughts drift away on the wind, I’m left only with my focus on the forest and the water. Once, a bird flits across an opening between the trees, alighting for a moment on a twig, just long enough to snap a photo.

When I get home, I see it is silhouetted and I can’t tell if it’s a prothonotary warbler or something else. The little crest on its head makes me think cedar waxwing. Then I notice it has a piece of cottonwood fluff in its beak, being carried back to a nest I suppose.

Please offer your IDs in the comments below!

The more time I invest in trying to see a particular bird, the harder it is to give up. But after 30 minutes or more, this one remains elusive. I’ll pass by this spot from the other side on my return, and try again. The birds don’t wander far from their tree cavity nests. I paddle on with a happy heart, happy to be here.

My second mission is my usual one during high water: see where I can get while afloat. How far into the forest can I find water and avoid logs and jams, or the barriers of a tight stand of a trees. I’m working my way upstream, and if nothing else, this method keeps me from fighting current any more than I have to. As I sneak around trunks and under branches, I just think about all the spiders and insects that are certainly getting brushed into my boat and tell myself I prefer them to paddling against the flow.

I nose my kayak up a side channel of a side channel, the water becoming shallower and the route getting narrower. Common grackles, large and noisy black birds with an iridescent blue head, are all over. A great blue heron stalks along a wet shoreline, its beak poised like the tip of a spear. I feel sorry for any frogs it encounters.

After a while, I come to an obstacle. Several trees have tipped over in opposite directions, leaving their root wads standing straight up, and in this case, a narrow passage between. I don’t know if I can get through, and if I get stuck in there, it will be spider central, and who knows if I’ll even be able to get any farther once I’m past it — but fortune favors the foolish, and I push on.

Using my paddle and sometimes my hands, I pull myself through this natural corridor and pop out into flooded trees beyond.

Then I hear another prothonotary warbler, in the trees just ahead, around a floating raft of tree trunks and other flotsam. Paddle down, camera up.

Sound is soon followed by sight as I see a splash of yellow bouncing between leafy branches. The bird doesn’t stay still long, and it’s hard enough to get a clear and focused shot, but I don’t have to wait long before I’m rewarded. It lands for a moment on the debris.

I press the shutter. I feel vindicated for deciding to push through the root wad gauntlet

Notice the brightness of the yellow on the bird’s head. It is so saturated, so rich in color, so uniformly vibrant, it’s impossible to capture any contrast. I get a decent shot, but it’s not as sharp as I’d like.

Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360

I stick around a while hoping for a better shot, the bird even momentarily passes through branches right in front of me, but not long enough to press the shutter. Then the grackles start gathering in the trees around me, squawking, and it’s like they’re telling me I’ve bothered their buddy long enough.

I pass yet more unseen squeaking prothonotaries as I push up through the narrowing channel. It leads me back into flooded forest, and I weave and wind between trees and stumps and all the logs and limbs that were been washed out of shorelines this spring. I pass through another gap between upturned tree roots. Then the route is blocked, and I must accept this path’s conclusion.

I could paddle back downstream and up and around to more viable channels, or drag my kayak over a narrow island to water where I’ll be in the clear. Going back feels more like retreat than finding my way overland.

With the high water, there is nothing like a beach, just sharp drop-offs from shore that go down to the bottom a few feet deep. I heave myself up and out of the boat and get one knee on the slick, muddy bank, then I get a foot on a branch laying halfway down the bank, one hand holding the boat, then I fling myself up. I’m covered in mud. I grab the boat with both hands and pull it up the bank, then drag it across the island, feet squishing in the soft soil.

Getting back in the boat on a similar steep bank, this time with flowing water pushing at the kayak, is harder than getting out. But I am soon back in my seat and paddle in hand and it’s just another couple hundred yards upstream before I can turn and drift back down.

I put the camera away for now and let the river carry me a while, observing the world without the interference of photographic lenses. The banks are higher and drier here, and I don’t hear any prothonotaries. I spot my first cedar waxwing of the season.

The river takes me back past the stand of trees where I unsuccessfully stalked a prothonotary warbler earlier. I immediately hear it singing again and nose the kayak into the island, and once again wait. It’s a peaceful place and I certainly don’t mind spending more time here.

I’m so focused on the prothonotary that I don’t notice much else. I take a brief video and only later, at home, do I hear what I believe is a warbling vireo, apparently singing louder than the prothonotary. The species is known for foraging high in the treetops, so I probably never would have gotten a glimpse, much less a photograph.

This story has gone on long enough, especially for one which is ordered backwards. I’ve been saving the best for last.

Soon after I slide into the copse, the prothonotary appears. I don’t move. These birds can be gregarious and curious given time to get comfortable.

I watch the warbler land on the trunk of a broken-off old maple, pocked with woodpecker holes. It pokes its head into one hole, and I realize that must be its nest, and it’s bringing back a snack for its offspring. The morsel is even visible in one photo, what looks like a worm or caterpillar.

After dropping off the food, the bird comes slowly closer to me, hopping between trees and cocking its head in my direction. It finally lands on a recently-fallen tree arcing across across the water (seen in the video above).

The warbler does not sing while we’re so close to each other. It seems to be telling me that three hours and three miles of paddling (and dragging over islands) is effort enough, and I should take my photographs and get out of here.

I press the shutter over and over, and end up with what I can safely say is my best photograph of this species, and possibly any bird. There is even contrast in the bright yellow of its head.

Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360


3 responses to “In pursuit of prothonotary warblers”

  1. Thomond OBrien Avatar
    Thomond OBrien

    Nice shots Greg. The first one is a Cedar Waxwing. Look at the haircut.

  2. Allison Mcginnis Avatar
    Allison Mcginnis

    Your hard work paid off! Great capture!

  3. Mark Hove Avatar
    Mark Hove

    Feels like I was right there with you, nice


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In pursuit of prothonotary warblers