Back to nature, or: the search for the elusive golden swamp bird

Prothonotary Warbler

After enjoying the more public areas of Griggs Reservoir, I headed south along the Scioto riverbank, below the dam.  I had heard a bird singing in this area recently, one I’d never seen personally, and wanted to see if I could get a picture of it.

There’s some nice stonework near the dam.  This is a set of stone stairs apparently done in local material; the low stone wall you see next to it is a style you can see extending for miles along the major roads in this area.  It sort of reminds me of stones taken from farm fields and placed as low marker walls before mechanized agriculture.  Nicely decorative now.

I walked along a Frisbee golf park.  The sun was coming over the trees as the morning mist burned off.

A pleasant lady and her large dog walked by me; I smiled and said hello.  The dog came over to me and checked me out.  I’m an animal lover and get along well with most pets.

‘How you doin’, boy!  Nice fella!’

The dog wagged his tail a bit, then barked at me and started growling low in its throat.  That’s generally not a good sign.  His owner said:

‘Oh, he doesn’t like bags!  You have a bag on your shoulder!’

My camera bag on my shoulder was partially hidden by my body until the dog came up to me.  Questions went through my mind, but let’s face it, when a large growling dog doesn’t like your camera bag, it’s sort of hard to talk your way out of such a situation.

I took my snazzy camera bag- apparently the stuff of one dog’s nightmares- off of my shoulder and dropped it onto the grass.  It had nothing of any meaningful weight in it; my camera was around my neck.

As soon as I dropped the bag, the dog walked off  back to its owner, happily wagging its tail.  All was right with the world once again.  And that’s good for everyone!

After this offbeat encounter that left me mumbling under my breath about leashes, I continued on.  There were places where one could move through a large screen of bushes to get down to the riverbank.  As I walked further south, the river became more of a remote place having little to do with people.

To get down to the riverbank, there was a dirt embankment that one has to scramble down, normally not a big deal.  It had rained some overnight however, turning the dirt into slick mud at places.  I normally navigate these embankments just fine, but this time I hit a particularly wet spot with no tree roots to stop my slipping foot and I ended up sliding down a short muddy slope on my rump.

My first reaction was of triumph- I kept my new camera safely looped around my neck and held high and dry in one hand!  Of secondary importance was the fact that I was uninjured.  After wiping off a handful of mud onto some grass, I wasn’t in too bad a shape (muddy shorts notwithstanding).

Hoping to myself that I was done with such unorthodox adventures for the morning, I picked a more sure-footed path down to the riverbank and decided to walk there.

The Scioto River was running fairly strong with all of the rain recently.  This far below the dam, the water was no longer turbulent, and there were many pleasant sights and sounds to take in.

The shore was rather rocky, with streamlets running into the main flow.  Swallows swooped over the river, their faint calls blending in with the sound of the water moving by.

No humans were in the area, though I was observed by occasional riverbank denizens.  It was very peaceful.

I walked down to a spot along the river where I had heard a strong song of a solitary bird days before, where some willow trees were along the bank.  I had looked for this bird singing here in vain, though I did glimpse a flash of golden color once through the leaves.  I was determined to get a better view of this bird.

I stayed in the area, holding still for quite a while.  Suddenly, I heard the bird sing not too far away!  A repeated note sung loudly several times rang out.  My suspicion that this bird was nesting or trying to attract a mate in this area was apparently correct.  I started scanning the trees, looking for movement.  From the sound of the song, the bird seemed to sing from a few trees, preferring to keep to the willows along the bank.

Suddenly, I spotted the golden bird.  I photographed him while he moved through the trees, singing and catching the occasional insect.

And finally, this wonderful bird perched out in the open for me.

This is a male Prothonotary Warbler, and he is quite a sight- he fairly glowed, his rich yellow-orange color quite unlike any other bird I’ve seen.  This bird is one of only two warbler species that nest in tree cavities, and they prefer swampy woodland areas near water.  Willow trees are one of its favorite haunts.  They have been known to use nesting boxes as well.  The male will attract a female by jumping in and out of his chosen nesting cavity, drawing her attention to his nifty nesting pad.  He will defend his territory against other males- he may get into bill-snapping contests with rivals.  They winter as far away as South America.

This species is named after certain Catholic Church officials that wore yellow robes.  Apparently this bird has similar taste in colorful trappings!  Ohio has lost much of its original wetlands since being settled over the last two centuries by our ancestors who worked the land.  You don’t see many of these striking birds here because there is less of the habitat that they love.

However, there is hope in the form of Charlie Bombaci, a retired IRS agent (of all things!) who has made it his life’s work to place nesting boxes to attract numbers of these birds to Hoover Reservoir, just north of Columbus.  Thanks to Charlie, there are 250 or so Prothonotary couples raising young birds there, keeping Ohio’s population from dwindling.  You can read about his efforts in the following recent article by Jim McCormack:

Prothonotary warbler a golden flash in panorama
(The Columbus Dispatch, Sunday, May 15th, 2011)

I saw other sights in my riverbank adventure, but I’ll draw this story to a close for now.  There’s plenty to discuss later on.  I hope my photographic efforts are improving!