Prothonotary Warbler Project

The prothonotary warbler derives its name from ancient Catholic scribes who were said to wear bright yellow hoods, which these cute little warblers appear to be wearing.  As opportunistic as they are brilliant yellow, these eastern warblers are just a little bit lazy as well. If they can find a vacated downy woodpecker nest to claim as their own, they do so willingly.  In lieu of finding a ready-made nests, the prothonotary warblers prefer building nests in pre-drilled woodpecker holes or rotted-out branches and stumps.  However, I’ve recently learned that they will inhabit man-made nest boxes, too, when strategically under tree canopy near the water.

The Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary System Program and Foundation (BTNEP), contracted with me to take Natalie Waters, a bird scientist, to install nest boxes in two locations within Terrebonne Estuary System and then check them weekly for acceptance, habitation, and progress. Even though we are not yet to the halfway point of the project, the results so far are very positive, and it looks like we might end up with most of the boxes being adopted. 

According to Natalie, these birds migrate in the fall to places south of here, with many flocks ending up in Columbia for the winter.  Then ’round about March, along with many other species of migratory birds, they start making their trek north to do their nesting.  Fortunately for those of us who live near the cypress swamps, many of these birds choose this area in which to lay their eggs and hatch their young. Those young will most likely return to the same area to lay their eggs and hatch their babies.  That is a very good thing!

After the initial installation of boxes in the Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge, we didn’t check or otherwise disturb them for two weeks.  When we went back this past week, we were pleased to see that many of the boxes contained nesting material.  This far into spring, many of the breeding couples have already hatched and fledged one batch of young.  Meaning, this will be their second and final brood of the spring, and it is very encouraging that they have chosen our boxes as the place in which to rear their second families.

Once we performed a visual check of every box and wrote down the information, we sat quietly in my boat within sight of four of the nest boxes and observed. What took place as we watched was a National Geographic moment as the birds began singing out and calling to one another.  Soon, a male approached one of the new boxes.  First,  he flitted around the box, sat on top, and then finally flew in and out several times.

Natalie explained to me that the male bird was inspecting the box.  If he liked it, then he would gather some moss (nesting material) and take it into the box. He would then attract the female to see if he could rouse her interest in the box.  

Across the way, another pair attracted our attention, with the male flitting around the box to lure the female. Moments later, she showed up to check it out.

She flitted around near the entrance, not certain she wanted to encourage the male by accepting his offer.  If she enters the box and likes what she sees, she shows her acceptance by completing  the nest building and will build it up to the edge of the entrance hole.  This is where she will lay four to six, creamy beige-colored eggs with brown spots and then incubate them for about two weeks.  After they hatch, the babies grow so quickly that they will be “fledged” or flying in about 10-11 days. 

From now through mid July, our job is to check each of the 40 boxes once a week and record the number of eggs, then the number of live baby birds.  At some point, we will try to band the female and the babies, which never harms the birds because their legs get skinnier as they mature.  We will then continue to track their weekly growth and the approximate date they fledged.

Locally, these eye-catching gems are called swamp canaries because of their yellow color and a canary-like call they sometimes use.  While overall numbers of migratory birds have significantly diminished over the past 50 years due to coastal land loss, it is a wonderful sight to behold these birds in the wild, still clinging to life and migrating through here every spring to procreate.  I’m honored to be part of this project, and if by doing this study, we can prolong the existence of prothonotary warbler, then it will have been worth every minute on the water and every ounce of sweat.

For the birds,



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    1. Thanks, Robin! Glad you enjoyed it. I know you’ve been curious about what kind of work I was doing on the water!! I’m wearing a hat on my hair and sunscreen on my face, I promise!

  1. How interesting! What a fun project. I will try to find a way to work this tid bit of information into conversation soon so I sound smart. When I get that look, like “how do you know that?”, I just direct them to the blog and confess I learned it here.
    Rodan Fields is awesome. Bryces skin is healed, no more harsh prescription medication for him.

  2. I’m so glad the project is showing success already. How cool that you get to participate!

    1. Thanks, Heather, me too! Makes it more exciting knowing that we will be seeing some real things happening!

  3. It sounds like an interesting project. I wanted to know if she approved of the nest and moved in the box!

    1. Ha, Jen, me too!!! We won’t know until this Thursday when we check to see if she built it all the way up to the opening!!!! I’m just excited that they are showing an interest in the man-made boxes! Maybe I’ll either update this post with photos as we go, or post new ones with new photos as we go!!

  4. I love the bird project!!! How exciting! Your article is very informative. I look forward to following this project.

  5. You have many fascinating and fun jobs, B.W. Knowing it takes a lot of work! I learn so much from you. I’m always interested in what you’ve been up to and I’m never disappointed! Thank you for educating me on birds. I keep seeing some I think are parakeets around here. Wishing you a belated Happy Mother’s Day. I know your heart is full of happiness this year. Dotter and MusicMan did a good job! Blessing to you.

    1. Yes, Cuz, my heart is full! About those parakeets, did you know there are some in the wild? Maybe you could get a closer look? What color are they?

  6. I love watching birds and these are so colorful! Mom always had bird seed and sugar water out for her “babies”. I wonder who is caring for them in that area now? I watched two mocking birds fight it out last week over a fence post! They finally both gave up and flew off.

    I wish I could go out with you at least once but, I don’t see it happening now. Keep posting the photos and articles and I’ll learn from you.

    1. I’ve had bird seed out all spring, and all I got for my effort were oodles of red-winged black birds, grackles, and the occasional pair of doves and blue jays! I did not see one, single solitary migratory bird in my trees or on my feeders this spring. I totally missed the migration. Oh well, maybe I’ll seem them in the fall as they head north again, but this project is more than making up for my missing the others!!

    1. Kim, you’ve been a big influence in my knowledge of birds and their calls. I seem to recall a time quite a few years ago when I took a photo of a bird that I could not ID and asked for your help. If I remember correctly, turns out, it was a female prothonotary! I am both fortunate to have this job and experience and very grateful for both!

  7. Have you observed them nesting in natural nesting cavities? Glad to read about the birds and bees.

    1. Great question, Margie. No, I have not seen them nesting in natural cavities? Have you? Although I have seen and photographed them in the local swamp many times.

  8. Just how many nesting boxes are being put out? Will the boxes remain in place year round? Will they return to the same boxes next year?
    I regularly use sunscreen. I’ve had to have a number of places frozen off and 2 major skin cancers cut out. One was on the top of my head! That one sent me to 3 dermatologist. The first 2 said it was dry skin. My CURRENT Dr did a biopsy after I told him that after going to 2 other Drs multiple times over an 8 YEAR span!
    The other was on my face requiring me to go to a plastic surgeon ending up with a 2″ incision below my left eye.
    Sunscreen and sunglasses are in use year round for me. Hat…not so much.

    1. Oh, my, Steffi, I had no idea you dealt with all that. I’m sure I need to get checked as much as I’ve worked in the sun. I should do it this month! She and I put out 50 boxes total, but she has two other locations where she has about 40 more that are accessible on foot. I’ll have to ask her if they’ll stay, but my guess is yes, and they are very likely to return to the same area, as all as the babies that are born here will also return!

  9. This is wonderful. As you know, I volunteer at Cypress Island Preserve. We have nest boxes there and I stay up to date by way of our land steward Will DeGravelles, and sometimes Eric with Audubon. I love to see this happening. Also Happy to see the photo of the prothonotary taken by my friend Betty. Don’t enter me into the contest. Thanks. Great post keep me informed about the birds.

    1. It’s good to know there are others working these warblers. I didn’t know, but I also never thought to ask! Do you know if they leave their boxes out year round? Thanks for hopping over, and if I recall, you posted here a long time ago under the name Swamp witch!!! Right? Well, it’s great to have you back, MM!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Bonita, and I’m really glad you you’re here!!!

  10. I just had time to sit and really read this article. Thank you. Everyone who works towards a better world and helping man, animal and anything else survive are true heroes to me. I’m one of those people who love to learn and I so look forward to each of your newsletters.

    I hope all is well and the little one is growing and you’re enjoying yourself.

    1. Ah yes, she’s growing and settling into life outside the womb! I’m very pleased the you enjoyed the article and learned something, too! Folks like you are the reason I take the time to share these stories! BW

    1. Interesting, LEJ. I never knew there were so many groups studying the migration and nesting patterns of these little beauties until I got involved with this particular project. I find it all very interesting and enjoyable! Thanks for stopping by! BW (PS – Oh, LEJ, I looked you up, and it seems we both write for some of the same magazines. I’m curious now as to how you ended up here?)

  11. It’s time for the random drawing, and the WINNER is Megan! Megan is comment number two, after excluding Robin, the sponsor! Congratulations, Megan! I will email you the details! Thanks, everyone, for participating!
    True Random Number Generator

  12. I like your new header. Very beautiful.
    We attended the company picnic today that had been postponed from last month due to the tornados and bad weather.
    I filled up on crawfish, shrimp & potatoes. Also brought home about 6 or more pounds of cooked ones and they are in fridge to be peeled added to the freezer. When the weather turns cool again I will be ready!
    I gave some friends your site info and told them to check out your blog. One mentioned he thought he had seen it once when he was looking for a boil recipe. I told him to look again and read thru it.

    1. Great! What will you make with your crawfish tails? Good to hear from you. I’m long overdue to post, but this bird project keeps me busy and the other days I’m catching up everything else. Hoping to at least post some pics here this weekend.

      1. I want to try your recipe you posted last. And will use one bag for gumbo. I have two bags of crawfish tails now and a quart bag of peeled, cooked shrimp from the picnic. While I was peeling stuff, I had 11 dozen quail eggs boiling that I peeled Monday and put in pickle brine I made. During the crawfish/shrimp peeling, we were hit by the hardest rain I’ve seen in many years. We got 3+ inches in one hour! Our yard is about 2-3 feet up above the road and the house is 2 feet from ground. The small, usually dry or a trickle creek about 100 yards north of us is about 5-6 feet lower than our yard. The water came up to our yard!! Rain was so hard that the steps from the porch down looked like waterfalls. Had several high water rescues and it is the first time EVER here that any of us know of. I got photos even though it was getting dark. I thought one of the objects that floated by about 250 feet away was the biggest ice chest I’ve ever seen. Then the police came by later to see if we’ve seen a coffin floating by. UH, Yes if it was red. It was. It was real but a halloween prop that washed out of a shed about 3 blocks away near the creek. I found I had a photo of it in one of the shots I took. 🙂 What a night!!!

        1. Wow! We’ve had more than our fair share of rain, but I still feel sorry for folks out west who need the rain. A coffin? Oh, it was a prop, thank goodness! Hope your dish turned out great!