Front Porch Prothonotaries


May 17th: male Prothonotary Warbler singing from our watering can in backyard

Just one of the many reasons why we garden for wildlife: Prothonotary Warblers breeding on our front porch!

Imagine our excitement on May 17th when we heard the distinctive and emphatic song of a Prothonotary Warbler: “Sweet! Sweet! Sweet!” We each grabbed binoculars and headed out to see where it was and found it singing passionately from a watering can near one of our water features, a waterfall. We assumed it was a late migrant, but soon we were happily proven wrong!


May 25th: male Prothonotary Warbler singing from boat trailer in front yard

Over the course of the next week it continued to sing from different spots in the yard, including the boat trailer on May 25th.

On May 26 it inspected a Carolina Wren roosting basket on our front porch.

On May 27 while in the garden I watched it peek into a number of our bird nest boxes, all fitted with English Sparrow guards making the entrance too small for Prothonotary Warblers. I quickly unscrewed the guards on three of the boxes.

sm-sm-w-sig-003On May 31, friends who had given us the wren roosting basket visited.  I lifted their roosting basket off its hook and declared, “Would you believe a Prothonotary inspected your roosting basket?” While talking, I poked a finger down inside and was aghast to find three eggs. I immediately put the basket back on the hook and backed away, wide eyed and amazed.

Prothonotary Warblers lay 4-6 eggs which take 12-14 days to hatch. I did the math and determined that they’d hatch sometime between June 13 and June 15. On June 15, we returned from a weekend away to find the adults coming regularly to feed young. Sweet! Sweet! Sweet! Right now, like clockwork, every ten minutes one or the other adult brings a bill full of butterfly and moth caterpillars, flies, beetles, and spiders.


White Cedar swamp forest where Prothonotary Warblers typically breed

The “Golden Swamp Warbler,” as it was historically named, lives in wet woods throughout its range. They nest in swampy lowland forests and river bottom woodlands that flood. They nest in natural cavities, often over water. According to The Birder’s Handbook, a Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, supposedly their young can swim which they often do the day they fledge (falling out of the nest cavity into water). They winter in mangroves.


Site of our “Front Porch nesting Prothonotary Warblers”


Our garden is a lot of things, but one thing it is not is a swamp! Our property is diverse with many native perennials, grasses, trees, shrubs, and vines – many occurring naturally and many more that I’ve added to the mix. Our property is pesticide and herbicide free. It is insect rich. The abundance of native plants and the absence of pesticides will hopefully guarantee the success of this Prothonotary Warbler nest. Caterpillars and other insects abound. Their supermarket is full to overflowing. If you do not follow this logic, you must read Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home.

Our 38-year old, half-acre wildlife habitat in southern New Jersey has attracted an amazing 212 different birds, including such unlikely species as Varied Thrush (found on the West Coast) and Black-headed Grosbeak (found in the western US). Our property has also attracted an amazing 78 different butterflies, including Brazilian Skipper and Gray Comma. Our butterfly yard list is the second highest in New Jersey (bested by Wade and Sharon Wander’s yard in extreme northwestern NJ with 84 species as of 2013).


Like clockwork, every ten minutes one or the other adult brings a bill full of butterfly and moth caterpillars, flies, beetles, and spiders (June 18, 2015)


Delivering food and picking up a fecal sac to carry off


We are constantly entertained by wildlife visitors to our oasis. We’ve come to expect the unexpected. But I don’t think we ever anticipated nesting Prothonotary Warblers on our property, much less on our front porch above the porch swing and rockers.

We can only guess that the drought (no rain between April 22 and May 22) pushed them out of the “then dry” wet woodland swamp 1/3 mile away and into our yard where numerous water features could be heard and experienced: two man-made waterfalls, two wildlife ponds, a mister and dripper, and five well-maintained bird baths.

The Ultimate Reward

Prothonotary Warblers nesting on our front porch: the ultimate reward for a wildlife habitat gardener. But in fun, my husband Clay wonders, what do they know that we don’t know about sea level rise?

Other treasured rewards we’ve experienced in our wildlife habitat can be enjoyed in various posts about Box Turtles, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Red-spotted Purples, Cloudless Sulphur, Pipevine Swallowtail, Monarchs, Mourning Cloaks, Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, Hummingbird Clearwings, Black Cherry, Red Cedar . . .

Pat Sutton, of Cape May NJ, is an author, educator, and naturalist who has taught gardening for wildlife workshops and led tours of private wildlife gardens for over 30 years. She shares her passion around the country at festivals and conferences and is available to speak to your group or organization.

© 2015, Pat Sutton. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Carol Duke says

    How delightful Pat. I have yet to meet this beautiful bird. What a sweet housemate. I so enjoyed this article.
    Carol Duke recently posted..Scarlet Tanager Joins ‘A Bestiary’

    • Pat Sutton says

      Carol, thank you for your kind words. May you get to savor one in the near future. They are one of my favorites!
      Pat Sutton recently posted..The Ultimate Reward for a Wildlife Gardener

  2. Carole says

    What a treat to have the warbler hiding in plain sight. And think you for the hint about the roosting basket. I was given a set of these as a gift. It doesn’t snow here in north Florida, but I have put them out on some cold nights in the hope that they might be used. Now I know I can use them year-round to entice some feathered friends.

  3. Paul says

    Pat, loved hearing about your unique warbler visitor! We have a small condo in CA with just a water fountain, tree (white birch), and some understory sage and get Townsend warblers, black throated warblers,and yellow rumps. As we are moving to a house with a large yard, your wildlife garden story is inspiring, thanks!


    • Pat Sutton says

      Paul, sounds like you’ve got the right gardening touch and know how. May all your efforts with your new property give you many rewards.
      Pat Sutton recently posted..The Ultimate Reward for a Wildlife Gardener

  4. Gaylord says

    Your efforts are again rewarded!

  5. Vera Capogna says

    How lucky you and Clay are! The Prothonotary became a life bird for me only this spring! For you to have them nest on your porch–what a treat!

    • Pat Sutton says

      Vera, so glad you got to see Prothonotary Warbler this spring. Stunning, aren’t they! And, yes, the nesting pair on our front porch are indeed a treat and a gift!
      Pat Sutton recently posted..The Ultimate Reward for a Wildlife Gardener

  6. Sue Campbell says

    What a surprise for you! Your passion and hard work in your garden make this gift well deserved.
    Thanks for sharing.

  7. Christine Clemenson says

    Pat, What a testimony to the success of your wildlife habitat. It gives us all encouragement to keep tweaking our gardens. Also some really good reasons to add more and varied water features to the garden. I would have loved to have seen your face when you first lifted that basket! Lovely photos by you and Clay. Thank you for sharing this sweet story!

  8. Marilyn says

    How exciting, and amazing to think they can surprise even you and Clay! And how lovely, as you work outside, to be continually told that your gardens are, “Sweet! Sweet!”

  9. Diane Redling says

    Congrats.. We are sooo jealous.. Lisa made several Prothonatary nest boxes and posted them by our stream but the wrens rule….maybe we should try roosting baskets.. enjoy!

  10. Diana Wind says

    great photos. I especially like the watering can shot and the concert solo on the boat trailer. we garden for wildlife too; I’m always inspired by your posts. Enjoy your visitor!
    Diana Wind recently posted..Today in Our South Jersey Garden #GardenCuizine

  11. Joan Rottkamp says

    Thank you for sharing your inspirational story. Can you tell us where to purchase a nesting box like yours? I tried looking up sites but the nesting boxes they offered for sale were not as nice as yours. Thanks for your help. Joan

    • Pat Sutton says

      Hi Joan, when I googled Wren Roosting Basket I came up with this one (it looks most like ours):



  1. The Ultimate Reward for a Wildlife Gardener says:

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