A Golden Swamp Warbler

The woods are coming to life not only with a profusion of lush new-green leaves and lacy white dogwood blooms, but also with the colors and songs of warblers, vireos, tanagers and other returning neotropical migrant songbirds. At this time of April, almost every day can bring something new.

A small, glowing-yellow Prothonotary Warbler, singing in the mucky bottomland near the North Oconee River, among a tangle of under-story shrubs and the frail white shimmer of silverbell blooms, was the highlight of a Saturday morning walk for me. The walk in the Whitehall Forest was sponsored by the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society, and the weather could not have been nicer – cool, sunny and bright, warming up as we walked through a variety of habitats, from bottomland forest with tall old trees, to open meadow-like power cuts, pine woods, upland hardwood forest, and scrubby early-succession fields.

From a spot at first hidden among the low shrubs and vines, the song of the Prothonotary Warbler rang out loud and clear – tsweet-tsweet-tsweet-tsweet-tsweet-tsweet-tsweet. After we searched for several minutes it was finally spotted, and cooperated, as if resigned to come out and give us a look in order to get rid of us. It hopped up onto a low branch and posed there, looking the part of its older name, the Golden Swamp Warbler, with its blue-gray wings, greenish back and brilliant deep-yellow, round head and breast glowing in a shaft of sunlight among the shady shrubs. As we watched, it tilted its head back, parted the long, pointed bill, and sang.

A signature bird of shrubby bottomland forests near rivers, creeks and beaver ponds in the South, Prothonotary Warblers have become less common here over the past two or three decades, mainly because of loss of the kind of habitat they need.

We also heard the songs of Yellow-throated, Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos, Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Pine Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and – one of my favorites – the piping, rising zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-ZEEE of a Prairie Warbler; and the calls of White-breasted and Brown-headed Nuthatch.

We watched a Palm Warbler, with reddish-chestnut cap and yellow throat and breast, streaked red-brown on the sides, wag its tail on the low branch of a tree; and a vivid Yellow-throated Warbler – black and white and gray and lemon-gold – gathering nest materials from a clump of brownish debris suspended in the trees. At one point, a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew directly over, fairly low, giving us a perfect view of its compact shape, square-tipped tail and distinctive flap-flap-flap-glide pattern of flight. An Osprey soared over high, also giving everyone a glorious view of its long slender wings, and its white and dark patterns stretched out against a deep blue sky.

All in all, with a total of 49 species and clear views of a Yellow-throated Vireo, Louisiana Waterthrush and several other songbirds, it was a great morning of birding in a beautiful location. Thanks to trip leader Ed Maiorello and the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society!

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