Thursday, May 21, 2015

Prothonotary Warbler

If you visit Rockport, Texas, as we did last March, an interesting (and unlikely-looking) site to visit is the Demo Bird Garden and Wetlands Pool maintained by the city and the Texas Department of Transportation. A short boardwalk winds across several ponds and through a small woodland patch. We had stopped here on previous visits during draught, but knew the location had potential in a wet year.

This year, one of the first birds we found was this Prothonotary Warbler, found in Southeastern swamps and even venturing into southern Minnesota. Despite the bird’s being common, this photo is my first of the species. This warbler is named after prothonotaries, yellow-robed papal clerks in the Vatican. Prothonotaries are our only warbler that breeds in tree cavities, often using holes made by Downy Woodpeckers.

My mentor, John Trott, told the story of how a Prothonotary Warbler resulted in the allegation of Alger Hiss's being a communist spy. Petit (1999) retells the tale. Briefly, a man named Whittaker Chambers accused Hiss of being a spy. Hiss claimed not to know Chambers. Chambers countered that the two men did know each other, and that Hiss, a birder, told Chambers than he had seen a Prothonotary Warbler along the Potomac River. Hiss independently told the House UnAmerican Activities Committee about seeing the warbler, confirming his lying about not knowing Chambers. This discovery was partially responsible for the political rise of one of the committee members, Richard Nixon.

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