Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
The flight of the prothonotary warbler

Today’s post comes from Jess Matthews, Chief Naturalist of Rondeau Provincial Park. Special thanks to Kevin Gevaert for providing photos of prothonotary warblers!

Close your eyes.

Try to imagine a spring without birdsong.

A spring without flashes of color fluttering between the bushes.

A silent forest without oranges, yellows, blues and reds…

…it can be hard to imagine, especially if you spend spring in Rondeau Provincial Park, where migrating warblers seem to drip from the branches in every color of the rainbow.

While such a terrible situation may be difficult for us to imagine, the reality for a spring singer is one of disappearance, silence and extinction.

The Prothonotary Warbler is currently listed as endangered in Canada, meaning it faces imminent extirpation (it no longer exists in Canada) or extinction.

A shrinking habitat

The range of this beautiful and showy warbler is restricted to southwestern Ontario in Canada and it specifically needs forested wetlands such as the marshes (seasonal wetlands) in Rondeau to breed.

There are no other warblers like this in Ontario; They stand out, even from their own group, they are unique and fragile.

warbler with food in its beak

This specialized habitat requirement means that there are not many places left for the prothonotary warbler. With the current trend of habitat loss, your options are disappearing more and more each year.

It also means that if you want to catch a glimpse of these beautiful creatures, Rondeau in May and June is where you will find them.

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Protecting the prothonotary

Rondeau Provincial Park has over 3,000 hectares of protected wetlands that are perfect for the prothonotary’s nesting needs.

To help them, staff have erected nest boxes with cavities throughout the park that are specifically sized to accommodate the prothonotary warbler.

That they breed in Rondeau is fantastic news for thousands of bird watchers who flock to Rondeau each year to enjoy the spectacular bird watching in May.

warbler looking at the water

One of the stars of the show is this incredible songbird. They are (almost!) a guaranteed sighting in the spring, as their nesting areas are right along the Tulip Tree Trail, one of the most popular trails.

As you walk the Tulip Tree Trail, you’ll see long walkways spanning huge swales that reflect the towering tulips in their glassy surface.

What the prothonotary warbler sees is the perfect habitat for nesting, with the protection and food storage that water provides. If you look closely, you’ll notice this yellow flare fluttering over low branches, picking up aquatic insects from the surface of the water.

And watching closely is exactly what the Rondeau staff is doing.

staff in wetland with clipboard

In 2022, new nest boxes were added to the Rondeau Marshes to help increase habitat space for these rare birds.

Monitoring was also increased, checking each box to detect nesting activity and listening for the distinctive “Second, second“Song of the male bird.

This research is something that will increase our overall understanding of what these birds need and how their population responds to human help.

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What would it mean if we lost this southern gem?

The loss of this bird has greater repercussions than the disappearance of the dazzling golden yellow and the silence of its song in the forest.

The sheer pleasure of seeing this bird would be lost on recreational birders and campers alike!

person looking through binoculars

Thousands of people would miss the opportunity to glimpse this beautiful and rare bird. People across Ontario and the United States would see an end to the fascinating behavior of collecting insects from the surface of the water.

It also means that we will see a decline in ecosystem functions. Without a doubt, the prothonotary warbler has a place and a job to do to keep the ecosystem in healthy balance.

A bird that feeds on aquatic insects such as swamp mosquito larvae? Sounds like a species we want to conserve!

Looking for ways to help the prothonotary warbler?

If you live in southwestern Ontario and have land with forested wetlands, consider building a nest box to increase habitat. You can find information about nest boxes on NestWatch.

Learning about a species and sharing knowledge can have a big impact on species at risk. Reading this blog (consider sharing it with a friend!) and attending Discovery programs at Ontario Parks are great ways to learn more.

Finally, consider making a donation to Ontario Parks. Your donation will help fund science and research, as well as continue to protect these vital habitats.

This is the second edition of our 2023 Species at Risk series.

Read our previous edition: Polar bears and prothonotary warblers: species on the edge