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Preparing a Place for the Prothonotary Warbler


This Spring our local Audubon chapter asked for a volunteer to monitor and collect data on a series of nest boxes at a local wildlife refuge. I realize that for many who read this, there’s nothing about this opportunity that screams “bucket list.” But there’s two great reasons why I quickly signed up.


First, because this is by far my favorite birding spot in the county — a veritable treasure trove of bird diversity, especially in the Spring. And yet the entire refuge is limited-access, confining one’s birding efforts to the roadside and a viewing platform, with wildlife cameras set up to bust would-be wanderers.[1] Yes, even with this limited access, I’m convinced it’s still the best spot in the county. But the Audubon e-mail promised that the project volunteer would receive a county permit granting full access to all 700 acres of this wonderland. This is the birding equivalent of a backstage pass.


And second, the bird in question — the bird I would be tasked to steward — is the amazing Prothonotary Warbler.



Prothonotary Project


The Prothonotary Warbler is yellow. Unbelievably yellow. There are some other colors involved (on the back, neck, and vent) but when you look at this bird you’ll forget them. It’s yellow like a Van Gogh sunflower. Its breeding habitat includes swampy woodlands, along with forested riverbanks and lakeshores, and the loss of these sorts of habitats in the U.S. has led to declining populations in recent years. It winters in mangrove swamps, which are declining too. All in all, this doesn’t bode well for the Prothonotary, and thus our local Audubon chapter has been doing its part in maintaining a small network of eleven boxes[2] along the wooded shores of the preserve’s river inlets. It’s great Prothonotary habitat, and once you’re in their space, they’re not hard to find: they stay low, sing loud, and stick out pretty conspicuously with that vivid yellow plumage.


Warblers welcome.

And so, since early April, I’ve been making the rounds: taking nest measurements, counting eggs and chicks, logging photos, and recording data, working semi-regular expeditions into my normal pastoral schedule.[3] Along the way I learned a lot about these birds. I learned how to distinguish a Prothonotary nest from those of other birds (a telltale mossy bed laid by the male, often completed with straw-and-leaf materials by the female). I learned how to I.D. their asymmetrically-rust-spotted eggs. I learned the etiquette of approaching a box: knock first, count to ten, and knock again (a technique practiced by both bird researchers and door-to-door salespeople). I learned their precisely-delivered song, and their careful nest-protective behavior. I learned how to do my observations quickly and move along, leaving them as undisturbed as possible — and when to leave a nest alone if the chicks were close to fledging. And I learned how to log data in fancy-sciency-type language, trying to sound bird-smart for whoever would be reading my spreadsheet.[4]


Perhaps the data I collected will appear in some future research paper in a scientific journal somewhere. But I assume that the project managers haven’t anticipated the potential theological aspects of the study; this, after all, is the work of ornitheologists. And so I humbly submit this supplemental independent research[5], convinced that a bird that’s named after a vestment in the Roman Catholic Church[6] definitely deserves some ornitheological reflections.



The Costs of Preparing a Place


Prothonotary eggs in Box 908.

Jesus told his disciples in John 14:2: “I go to prepare a place for you.” That seemed a fitting theme verse for my task, each time I walked the 3.5-mile circuit between nest boxes. My role was to observe, but also to ensure optimal conditions for a safe home. “Hello, warblers, I come to prepare a place for you.”


In nest-box terms, preparing a place is more challenging than I originally considered. Early trips involved removing wasp nests and the none-too-happy wasps (and a couple sleepy bumble-bees) that accompanied them. I began packing Benadryl as a precaution. Preparing a place also involved the inspection of the metal predator guards that deter unwelcome critters from scaling the pole into the box. If the guards are knocked askew, predators will waste no time in seizing the opportunity; my research partner had opened a box last year only to have a hefty black snake launch out at him. That story was on my mind pretty much every time I cautiously lifted open a door.


Add to that the freakish amounts of wood ticks. And the overgrown terrain filled with thick-thorned cat-briar. And then there was that unexpected thunderstorm. The storm happened on my inaugural trip, when my research partner was walking me through the locations of the boxes. It blew in quickly and caught us off-guard at least a mile from our cars, with lightning firing down from directly overhead. In a birdwatching first for me, I found myself squatting on the ground in a thicket of trees, soaking wet, keeping about 30 feet from my also-squatting associate so that, if one of us was hit, the other could still send for help, presumably to retrieve a body.[7] No, we did not finish the route that day.


And did I mention the ticks? Yeah, I hate ticks.


But others have invested far more in this project than I did. Preparing a place began at least fourteen years ago when two local birders volunteered their time and money to buy some discounted bluebird boxes from the State Employees Credit Union[8], modifying them to warbler specifications[9] and assembling a team to install them. A few years later, Duke Power (which controls the dam release for the nuclear plant) let the water get too high and flooded the entire project. Local Audubon member Ron Clark, who led the project, recalls: “We lost everything: nests, eggs, and maybe even some adults if they didn't get out. Most of the boxes were underwater and trashed.” And so Ron and company built a brand new set in his cabinet shop, salvaging what they could and placing the new boxes further up and further in.

Further up and further in.

My point is that, for all of the pleasantness of having 700 acres to yourself, preparing a place has its challenges, and creating a healthy home for others can come at a personal cost to self. Was it worth it? Indeed. This year, nine of our eleven boxes resulted in viable nests, most with multiple broods, and we saw at least 44 baby birds enter the world — mostly Prothonotary Warblers, along with a welcome mix of bluebirds, wrens, and chickadees who found safe haven in the boxes.[10] Nurtured homes set the stage for new life.


It occurred to me on one early hike that the eleven boxes fit that John 14:2 dialogue perfectly; Jesus was speaking to his eleven disciples in that moment (Judas having left the scene), promising them lovingly-created space in the Kingdom Come. I found myself reflecting on the work involved in making a promise like that. Although our bird boxes were inauspiciously numbered 901 to 911, perhaps I could have named them after the Eleven. Simon’s Box, Matthew’s Box, James’ Box #1 and #2. No doubt this would have confused the biologists.



Perfect Preparations

“In my Father’s house are many nest boxes. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” As I said, creating a healthy home for others can come at personal cost to self. What does it mean that Jesus prepares a place for his people? I’m sure it’s more than simply laying the carpet and countertops. It has to start with providing access. We rightly remember the Cross, recognizing that standing in the presence of a holy God requires a holiness that we cannot attain. As prospective homeowners of the new kingdom, our application had rightly been declined; our credit history report betrayed a shocking amount of debt and lack of assets. The Cross is the place where the riches of God in Christ were credited to our account. It’s not merely that our debt is paid (wonderful enough!) but that we are given credit for all of the righteousness of Jesus.


I think that means that when Jesus said he was preparing a place, he wasn’t just talking about the impending Cross. He was talking about everything he had done up to that moment. Every victory over temptation, every law obeyed, every compassion extended, every duty honored, every step of obedience taken, was the assembling of a perfect track record that he would choose to credit to us. To us! That holy life is handed to us like a house key, an invitation to one day move into God’s neighborhood. Do you feel the amazing grace in that?


Even now, Jesus has prepared — and is preparing — a place for his people. What that entails stretches our imagination, and we can only guess and dream at the details. But we know it will be a place absent of stings and snakes, unmoved by storms and floods, protected from predators, cleared of cat-briar (Ezekiel 28:24), and most definitely devoid of ticks. On that final day, Jesus will have removed all threats to a flourishing life.


But what’s absent isn’t nearly as beautiful as what’s present. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:3)


By faith in Christ, an outstanding nest awaits us. But best of all, we will dwell there with him.


 

[1] On one visit to the refuge several years ago I was shocked to come upon a huge crew of people milling about in the fields, clearly beyond the no-trespassing signs. Interlopers! Vagrants! Reprobate scoundrels! It turned out to be a movie crew filming a scene for an episode of Homeland. And yes, they had permits.

[2] Incidentally, Prothonotary Warblers are the only Eastern-U.S. warbler species that nest in cavities (natural or artificial).

[3] I’ve been grateful to alternate weeks with another volunteer, a local attorney and fellow birder who helped with the study last year as well. And yes, “A preacher and a lawyer walk into the woods” feels like a great joke setup.

[4] For instance, you don’t call it a Prothonotary Warbler. You write “PROW.” That’s four-letter bird shorthand developed by the BBL (Bird Banding Laboratory), referred to as a “banding code.” I didn’t do any banding, but at least I know how to drop the occasional “PROW” reference, as well as EABL, CARW, and CACH. I’ll let you look those up.

[5] Thus all the footnotes. It’s a research-paper thing.

[6] The papal clerks in the Late Byzantine era wore bright yellow robes. It’s an odd name for a bird, but admittedly an improvement over its prior one: Golden Swamp Warbler.


[7] Fun fact: My attorney friend had recently read an article about how to survive a lightning strike. Handy. Also fun fact: a lightning bolt is five times hotter than the surface of the sun.

[8] You can still buy them at any SECU branch office here in North Carolina. They’ve sold over 240,000 to date. Not your typical bank.

[9] Bluebird boxes tend to use a 1.5” diameter hole. Warblers do better with a 1.25” hole that keeps bigger birds out. So the team added hole adapters. Alas, the bluebirds got in anyway.

[10] That’s PROW, EABL (EAstern BLuebird), CARW (CARolina Wren), and CACH (CArolina CHickadee) if you’re speaking banding code. Now you know.

5 Comments


Beautiful. Absolutely Beautiful. (Tracy DiPietro)

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Waiting for and then reading your posts is like a surprise sighting of a PROW while on a walk! PRICELESS!! We are moving to western North Carolina in the next 6-12 months and I cannardly wait to see a PROW up close and personal!! When we get there, we need to find your church wherever it is in the state. I absolutely love your writings and your humor.

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Kevin Burrell
Kevin Burrell
Jul 05, 2023
Replying to

Thanks for the encouragement. My church is in Charlotte, and it's a great place with some outstanding people, though I admit I'm biased. :-)

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Craig Webb
Craig Webb
Jul 04, 2023

I like the Golden Swamp Warbler name better, but I'm not a sesquipedalian.

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Personally, I like Golden Swamp Warbler. I can spell it. Also, if you do this again, permethrins will keep the ticks off. Spray your clothes the day before going into the woods, not yourself. And don't let the cat get into it.

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