Front Porch Prothonotaries — Part TWO

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Adult Prothonotary Warbler with food and open-billed youngster in wren roosting basket nest site

In mid-June we proudly related the exciting story of Prothonotary Warblers nesting on our front porch. Now, in mid-July we are bursting as the “proud parents” of four successfully-fledged chicks!

As we wrote in July, the parents were feeding the rapidly growing young every few minutes with all the insects and caterpillars they were finding in our wildlife habitat and the woods beyond.

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Black Rat Snake being mobbed by both adult Prothonotary Warblers, just twenty feet from the nest

We were excited, but hugely nervous about the fate of the youngsters. It’s a tough world out there. A Black Rat Snake raided a House Wren nest in the very same location a few years back, and in recent weeks we had seen three different Rat Snakes in the yard, including one we found because both adult Prothonotaries were scolding it, fifteen feet up in a Hackberry tree and just 20 feet from the porch. We had been leaving our windows open so we could hear any urgent threats, like scolding birds. Luckily, the snake went the other way, although we would have moved it to our backyard woods if needed.

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Not stop food-begging young

Threats abound with at least one feral cat in the area, Blue Jays, Fish Crows, and Cooper’s Hawks, all potential predators of both adult and young Prothonotaries. One day a Broad-winged Hawk perched on a branch right over the yard, just 50 feet from the porch. Every time we left on an errand, we nervously returned home expecting the worst, and were relieved each time to see the parents busily feeding food-begging young.

One morning, we went out to get the newspaper to find two of the young out of the nest and on the concrete porch below. All we could guess was that a House Sparrow or a House Wren had thrown them out of the basket (a common problem Bluebird trail keepers face). The babies were totally helpless and unable to fly, so we carefully returned them to the basket. We breathed deep sighs of relief when the adults continued feeding young in the basket.

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Arrow points to roosting basket nest site with porch swing below

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June 24, 1st fledged young on porch swing below nest

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June 25, remaining three young fledged

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July 1, male investigating potential nest sites. Here we go again?

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July 8 at 7:30 p.m., male returned for the last time to bathe in our backyard bird bath

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Skeletonized leaves, tiny twigs, and moss all used in the Prothonotary Warbler’s nest

On June 24, I came home to find the first fledged Prothonotary Warbler below the nest on our porch swing. In minutes, it flew to the nearby cover and safety of a bush. The next morning, the remaining three left the basket. I zeroed in on their food begging calls and found one in an old Lilac next to the porch, one in a Hackberry tree beyond the porch and one in our Trumpet Creeper covered arbor. For the next few days we could easily hear the food-begging youngsters, and watched the adults taking food to them. They gradually moved farther and farther away in the direction of the swamp. Sweet! Sweet! Sweet! Successful fledging!

The male Prothonotary Warbler continued singing heartily. We watched him again investigate bird houses and a wren gourd. Even though we really knew that it was too late for a second brood (Prothonotary Warblers are very early fall migrants, often gone by mid to late August), we were in fact nervously wondering and questioning, “Here we go again?”

After a few more days, his singing subsided and we thought it was finally over. Yet just before sunset on two successive evenings the male Prothonotary returned to our yard to bathe in our array of water features and bird baths. July 8th was the last time we saw him.

A week later I removed their nest from the wren roosting basket. It was more sizable than I expected and carefully made of delicate twigs, many skeletonized leaves (which abound in our yard since we never rake leaves), and bits of moss. It was a work of art!

Our wildlife habitat hosted Prothonotary Warblers daily from May 17 to July 8, and they successfully fledged four young. Wow! We are still amazed by our front porch Prothonotaries, really the ultimate reward for wildlife and conservation gardeners.

The books tell us that if they are successful, Prothonotary Warblers frequently return to the same nest site location and even the same cavity. Despite the stress of parenting, we sure hope so!

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

    Pat, that is great news about your successful Prothonotary Warbler fledglings. I hope they come back next year. They are such beautiful birds. I wish I could mix that yellow! Great story.
    Carol Duke recently posted..Beloved Northern Cardinal

    • Pat Sutton says

      Carol, we were awed by the experience, this window into their normally mysterious and watery world. Yes, their golden color is other worldly. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Marilyn says

    How many times have I read here, “Build it and they will come.” But what a sweet surprise to get prothonotary warblers. They are new to me(and also to spell-check, BTW). Sweet indeed, to see all your hard work over years and years pay off in such an unexpected and spectacular way. Having had my experience this year with a mourning dove couple who nested in our front yard, I related to your fears. Hawks, and cats, and snakes, oh my! Mourning doves are very common, of course, but the experience of watching the entire process, from nest-building until the chicks fledge is magical. Also nerve-wracking when they are yours! I hope you have many more years of prothonotary visits, stressful though they may be. Sweet!


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