Big days in May: chasing the rare prothonotary warbler

When I first started paying attention to the Spring migration a couple of years ago, I saw sporadic, excited reports of prothonotary warblers being spotted here in New Jersey. What a weird name for a bird, I thought, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to chase all over kingdom come to find one.

A little more than a week ago, reports started coming in that a prothonotary warbler was singing its little yellow heart out along the Delaware & Raritan Canal about five miles from my home. The bird was hanging out in what’s known as the Dyson Tract, a swampy marsh studded with dead trees not far from U.S. Route 1 and close to a major shopping area. The spot is at the convergence of Lawrence Township, Princeton and West Windsor.

On Monday morning, I drove to the spot and parked in a small lot across the canal from the canal keeper’s house. It’s one of the last remnants of the old town of Port Mercer that died out in the mid-1800s as railroads muscled out canals for freight traffic.

I made the short walk along the towpath to look into the swamp where the bird was reported, and Merlin lit up with the bird singing. I couldn’t distinguish its song and, with no one else around to guide me, I took a walk farther into the tract. I was fortunate to hear a yellow-billed cuckoo, my first of the year, and I was happy with that. I emerged from the short trail and headed back along the towpath toward my car around 8 a.m. Three birders, soon to be joined by a fourth, were looking into the swamp. They’d seen the warbler popping up occasionally. I stayed with them for maybe 10 minutes before duty called me to the car, home and, ultimately, the office.

I returned on Wednesday morning, and another birder came by to tell me she had just seen the warbler. She even had a couple of nice photos of it in her camera. Alas, even though the prothonotary kept popping up on Merlin, I could find not a glimpse.

Back I went Friday morning, about 7 a.m., determined to wait the bird out. It was out there, Merlin insisted repeatedly, and I saw a few flashes of yellow far back in the swamp. I was fairly confident (or overly optimistic) that I’d at least seen it airborne. But I wasn’t satisfied.

To change my luck, I wandered farther into the tract, then turned around to take one more shot at the warbler.

After a few minutes, I spotted a small yellow bird, high up in a tree that wasn’t fully leafed out. Excitedly, I pointed my camera toward the bird and blasted off a few shots. Prothonotary warbler? No. A yellow warbler. Nice, but hardly rare and not what I was seeking.

I like to keep moving when I go birding, but I forced myself to stay put, keeping an eye on my iPhone clock as it ticked toward 8 a.m.

And then it happened.

Up in the same tree where I’d seen the yellow warbler, the prothonotary warbler appeared. No question. Bright yellow head and breast, dark wings. The bird was perched up high, and when it turned its head in profile, the sun lit it beautifully.

I clicked a few frames with my camera, then pulled up my binoculars to get a better look. The bird flew off shortly thereafter, and I let out a whoop and pumped my fist in triumph.

A lifer, long anticipated, and a beauty.

My photos were serviceable, not as crisp as I’d like but the bird was a good way off, and I had no complaints.

Today, Saturday, I went back to the Dyson Tract with my friend Laura, who was hoping to add the prothonotary to her life list. Merlin heard the bird repeatedly but we couldn’t see it for quite a while.

The prothonotary warbler singing on Saturday, farther back in the swamp than it had been the previous day.

All of a sudden, Laura spotted it singing at the top of a dead tree in roughly the middle of the swamp. It took me a few seconds before I could spot it, but when I did, there was no mistaking that yellow plumage, distant as it was. I got a few shots off with my camera, even one with the bird’s beak open in song.

Laura has a better binoculars than I do, and I was able to get an even clearer view with them.

Our “Big Day” was underway, and we’d leave the Dyson Tract in a happy mood as we headed over to the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm for even more adventure. More on that to come!

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

6 thoughts on “Big days in May: chasing the rare prothonotary warbler

  1. We enjoy reading your blog! Your distinctive perspective and genuine voice are game-changers in the world. Keep sharing, because your words have a lasting impact. Thank you for being you!

    Thanks – TheDogGod


  2. Nice! Prothonotary are scarce & intermittent on the edge of their range in NJ. I remember in some years they’d be present & others not. When I lived in NJ I had them (sometimes) along Raritan River near New Brunswick & in the Great Swamp. They’re scarce here in my part of FL. Pretty consistent on the Wekiva River but from a boat. They nest in cavities which is why they’re in a area with dead trees. Have fun!


      1. Hey! Got a question for you concerning chickadees. Years ago (mid ’70s) I lived for several years in Millstone on the river. I birded along that stretch of river & canal south to Princeton. In Millstone we had black-capped, south afound Griggstown they were replaced by Carolinas. In winter, at feeder, we’d get both. What is your experience with chickadees?


      2. First off, chickadees may be my favorite bird. We appear to be right on the transition line between black-capped and Carolinas, so much so that many birders here click the “either/or” option when reporting sightings on e-Bird. I often do that myself, but I’m concerned to report that I’ve seen fewer of them — whichever variety — over the last year or so, both at the feeders at home and in the woods. What you observed is still happening. I think it’s all part of the shifting north-south boundary patterns. Someone told me the other day that a similar pattern is happening with orioles — the orchards are coming up from the south and pushing the Baltimores north. I saw and heard plenty of each this weekend, and I’m glad of it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: