Prairie Warbler, Finally

One evening, back in early July, I took my camera and walked up to the county road that runs in front of the house.  I didn’t have any particular goal in mind, just knocking around looking for something to photograph.  The lady who owns the land on the other side of the road had the timber cut rather closely several years ago, planning to run a herd of goats.  The goats didn’t last long and the area has become brushy and overgrown.  Add in a small pond and the area is very attractive to several species of birds. 

Shortly after I reached the road, a small, yellow bird flew up to a low limb on a white oak.  I couldn’t tell what it was, so I quickly zoomed my 70-300mm lens to the long end of its focal length and shot a few frames.  Then the bird was gone.  I looked around for it for a while, but didn’t see it again.  The rest of my walk continued in the same vein: a bird would show up and I’d shoot a few quick frames.  Most of them I could see well enough to identify — a Robin, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a Wood Thrush, a pair of Eastern Phoebes, several Summer Tanagers, a female Indigo Bunting and a male Blue Grosbeak that was doing his best impression of a Prairie Chicken.  He hopped around in the middle of the road, tail straight up and wings spread to the side for several minutes.  If he wasn’t trying to dust himself, I’m not sure what was going on since I can’t find any reference to a “mating dance” or such for the species.  I shot several photos, but every single one was blurry. 

Back at the house, I hooked up the camera and the very first photo downloaded was this one:

This photo is fairly heavily cropped, but the bird is obviously a Prairie Warbler, most likely a female since the colors are muted and the streaking on the sides of the breast is rather indistinct.  This late in the year, however, I suppose it could have been a juvenile.  Continuing to browse through the photos and I found I had a photo of a male also:

This photo is even more heavily cropped than the first, but you can see that the colors are move vivid, the markings on the eyes darker and the breast streaks more distinct.  Now the cool part.  Despite the fact that I’ve been birding since the late 80s, including almost a decade where my birding approach could only be described as hardcore, and Prairie Warblers are reasonably common (supposedly!!!,) these are the first I’ve ever seen. 

Prairie Warblers — poorly named since you are highly unlikely to find one on an actual prairie — prefer open brushy areas with poor, dry soil, a description that includes an awful lot of the Ozarks.  I’ve spent an incredible amount of time in old, overgrown fields and cut-over, second-growth forests and seen countless Northern Cardinals, Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Rufus Towhees, all birds that have similar habitat preferences as the Prairie Warbler.  I’ve even made a few trips specifically to look for them, going to locations where other birders had reported seeing them.  And still, this is the first time I’ve seen one. 

Range Map: Ridgely, R.S., T.F. Allnutt, T. Brooks, D.K. McNicol, D.W. Mehlman, B.E. Young, and J.R. Zook. 2003. Digital Distribution Maps of the Birds of the Western Hemisphere, version 1.0. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia, USA.

Prairie Warblers breed over a wide swath of the eastern United States and into Canada, at least southern Ontario.  Missouri is on the western edge of their range and within the state, they’re mainly limited to the Ozarks.  Much of the Florida population lives in mangroves and are permanent, year-round residents.  The rest migrate to various islands in the Caribbean.  UICN Red Listed as “Least Concern,” the species is nonetheless declining over most of it’s range.  Habitat loss, some ironically due to reforestation and fire suppression, is the primary cause of this decline. 

Prairie Warblers feed primarily on insects and other invertebrates gleaned from foliage though they will occasionally fly out to make a catch on the wing.  One source indicates that they will also occasionally eat berries and tree sap.  The nest is an open cup, low in a bush or tree.  Typically single brooded, clutch size is 3-5 eggs, incubated primarily by the female and hatch after 11-15 days.  Fledging occurs after 8-10 days, though the new fledglings are dependent on the parent birds for another month or so.  Prairie Warblers are a frequent host of Brown-headed Cowbirds. 

So I can check another bird off on my life list and you can bet that next year I’ll be paying more attention to the old field across the road.

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