Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

A Prothonotary Warbler Comes to Groveland
April 28, 2012
By Douglas Chickering

     Last Thursday morning Lois Cooper and I received a call on my cell phone before we even left the house. An unexpected call at an unexpected hour always is either really bad news, or really good news. We had no pending tragedy over our heads so we anticipated good news; a hot new bird. And sure enough our friends Peter and Fay Vale had just discovered a Prothonotary Warbler at the south side of the swamp on J.B.Little Road. A Prothonotary warbler, found less than a mile from our house. The J.B.Little road starts in the high pines of West Newbury and basically ends at the swamp just outside of Quaker’s corners in Groveland. For automobiles it is nearby impassable due to benevolent neglect, but for us it is a recently discovered birding gem. Still almost unknown among the general birding public, those who do know go there more and more. It is a place to find Wood Duck, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Great Crested flycatcher, and Yellow-throated Vireo. Recently it has been the site of unexpected rarities. I have seen Nighthawks, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and little blue heron in this swamp. Last year it hosted breeding Common Gallinule, and if one is lucky the nearby nesting Northern Goshawk will make a swift appearance. Thursday its reputation received an additional boost by Peter and Fay’s discovery of a Prothonotary Warbler.

     Prothonotary Warbler, a bird of the southeastern swamps is extremely uncommon in Massachusetts. They usually make an appearance in Essex County either as a result of a migration over-shoot, or an extreme dispersal after nesting. Last year there was no reliable Prothonotary in eastern Massachusetts. When found they tend to draw a crowd of admirers. One of the reasons is rarity and the other is its beauty. They have blue-gray wings, gray legs, white under-tail coverts, a sharp black bill and black eye. The rest is yellow. A description that sounds rather pedestrian. When we think of brilliantly marked birds we conjure up images of the bright red of a Scarlet Tanager, or the electric blue of an Indigo Bunting, the impossible rich orange of an Oriole. Hardly ever do we consider yellow birds. There are a lot of birds whose dominant color is yellow. All are beautiful; some strikingly so. The bright chest of a Meadowlark and the breast of a Chat are surprisingly brilliant. Prothonotary Warbler is one of the most striking.

     Lois and I met our friends at the rude little bridge on J.B.Little road and although the warbler had disappeared we were reasonably certain it would reappear. Waiting for a bird is part of the birding life. Lois and I hadn’t seen a Prothonotary Warbler since 04 so we were prepared to wait. It was a quiet, warm morning and from out of the stillness we could hear birds calling. There was stirring in the bushes near the bridge and we focused on it. Yellow-rumped Warbler. Then with a surprising suddenness it was there. Popping up into a leafed out branch just above eye level: Prothonotary Warbler. It paused under the shaded cover of new foliage and sang once. Then, to our delight it moved out into the sun and our senses were overwhelmed by the yellow. A yellow the likes of which is beyond description. Starting with a lighter shade at the under-tail coverts then progressing deeper and darker across the breast and back and into the head, where the contrast with the black beak and black shoe-button eye was startling. In the sun the yellow of this bird was positively incandescent. It was clear to us that there was no human agent or talent that could quite capture the pure exquisite beauty of this tiny active creature. No brush or camera or poetic description could ever quite convey the burnished magnificent of this bird. It shone in the sun and it glowed in the shade. We followed it in hushed awe as it passed from shade, to sunlight, to tree top, to water’s edge. All of us appreciating that this was one of those special moments in our bird finding quest. This was our highest reward in an endeavor filled with reward. It was the treasure trove of a simple, eternal beauty, a glimpse of nature’s perfection. We lived in the magic moment and then the Prothonotary Warbler dove into the deep brush. It was on a mission of its own agenda and it was gone. We chatted amiably for a few moments, exchanging our similar impressions. Then, having witnessed the grand show, we left. It was over, but we left in the certainty that there would be other birds and other moments. We had been blessed. The spring was young and there would be more to come.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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