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Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club: a quarterly jjournal of ornithology online

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prised at the effect produced by a male flying across an open space
close to the dark water. It was as if a sunbeam had glanced
athwart the spot, lighting up everything for a moment, and leaving
greater gloom from the contrast after it had disappeared. Again
and again have I been tempted into shooting one, which I did not
really want, but which seemed far brighter than any I had previously
taken ; upon picking him up, however, I would find him perhaps no
more beautiful than many already preserved.

Mating began almost immediately after the arrival of the females^
and the '* old, old story '' was told in many a willow thicket by little
golden-breasted lovers. The scene enacted upon such occasions was
not strikingly different from that usual among the smaller birds :
retiring and somewhat indifferent coyness on the part of the female ;
violent protestations and demonstrations from the male, who swelled
his plumage, spread his wings and tail, and fairly danced round the
object of his affections. Sometimes at this juncture another male
appeared, and then a fierce conflict was sure to ensue. The com-
batants would struggle together most furiously until the weaker was
forced to give way and take to flight. On several occasions I have
seen two males, after fighting among the branches for a long time,
clinch and come fluttering together to the water beneath, where for
several minutes the contest continued upon the surface until both
were fairly drenched. The males rarely meet in the mating sea-
son without fighting, even though no female may be near. Some-
times one of them turns tail at the outset ; and the other at once
giving chase, the pursuer and pursued, separated by a few inches
only, go darting through the woods, winding, doubling, now career-
ing away up among the tree-tops, now down over the water, sweep-
ing close to the surface until the eye becomes weary with following
their mad flight. During all this time the female usually busies
herself with feeding, apparently entirely unconcerned as to the issue.
Upon the return of the conqueror her indifference, real or assumed,
vanishes, he receives a warm welcome, and matters are soon ar-
ranged between them.

The usual song of the Prothonotary Warbler sounds at a distance
like the call of the Solitary Sandpiper, with a syllable or two added, —

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Brewster on the Prothonotary Warbler, 157

a simple peet, tweet, tweet, tweet, given on the same key throughout.
Often when the notes came from the farther shore of a river or pond
we were completely deceived. On more than one occasion, when a
good opportunity for comparison was offered by the actual presence of
both birds at the same time, we found that at the distance of several
hundred yards their notes were absolutely undistinguishable; nearer
at hand, however, the resemblance is lost, and a ringing, penetrating
quality becomes apparent in the Warbler's song. It now sounds like
peet, tsweet, tsweet, ttweet, or sometimes tweet, trsweet, tr-sioeet, tr-sweet.
When the bird sings within a few yards the sound is almost startling
in its intensity, and the listener feels inclined to stop his ears. The
male is a fitful singer, and is quite as apt to be heard in the hot
noontide or on cloudy days, when other birds are silent, as during
the cool morning and evening hours. The ordinary note of alarm
or distress is a sharp one, so nearly like that of the Large-billed
Water Thrush {Siurus motacUla) that the slight difference can only
be detected by a critical ear. When the sexes meet a soft tchip of
recognition common to nearly all the Warblers is used. In addition
to the song above described the male has a different and far sweeter
one, which is reserved for select occasions, — ^ outpouring of the
bird's most tender feelings, intended for the ears of his mate alone,
like the rare evening warble of the Oven-Bird (Siurus auricapillus).
It is apparently uttered only while on the wing. Although so low and
feeble as to be inaudible many rods away, it is very sweet, resem-
bling somewhat the song of the Canary, given in an undertone, with
trills or " water-notes *' interspersed. The flight during its delivery
is very different from that at all other times. The bird progresses
slowly, with a trembling, fluttering motion, its head raised and tail
expanded. This song was heard most frequently after incubation
had begun.

In general activity and restlessness few birds equal the species
under consideration. Not a nook or comer of his domain but is
repeatedly visited through the day. Now he sings a few times
froi^pi the top of some tall willow that leans out over the stream,
sitting motionless among the yellowish foliage, fully aware, per-
haps, of the protection afforded by its harmonizing tints. The next
moment he descends to the cool shades beneath, where dark, coffee-
colored water, the overflow of the pond or river, stretches back
among the trees. Here he loves to hop about on floating drift-wood,
wet by the lapping of pulsating wavelets ; now following up some

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158 Beewster on the Prothonotary Warbler.

long, inolining, half-submerged log, peeping into ereiy crevice and
occasionallj dragging forth from its concealment a spider or small
beetle, turning alternately his bright yellow breast and olive back
towards the light ; now jetting his beautiful tad or quivering his
wings tremulously, he darts off into some thicket in response to a
call from his mate ; or, flying to a neighboring tree-trunk, clings for
a moment against the mossy bole to pipe his little strain or lock
up the exact whereabouts of some suspected insect prize.

This Warbler usually seeks its food low down among thickets,
moss-grown logs, or floating debris, and always about water. Some-
times it ascends tree-trunks for a little way like the Black-and-white
Creeper, winding about with the same peculiar motion. When
seen among the upper branches, where it often goes to plume its
feathers and sing in the warm sunshine, it almost invariably sits
nearly motionless. Its flight is much like that of the Water-Thrush
(either species), and is remarkably swift, firm, and decided. When
crossing a broad stream it is slightly undulating, though always
direct. Its food consists of insects, generally of such spiders and
beetles as are found about water. Audubon positively asserts that
he has discovered minute molluscous animals and small land-snuls
in their stomachs.

The nesting of the Prothonotary Warbler affords the most inter-
esting phase of its life history. Audubon*s account of its nest,
'' fixed in the fork of a small twig bending over the water," seems
in the light of our present knowledge open to serious doubts. At
least, it is not the mode of nidification used in the places where
it is best known at the present day. Mr. B. F. Goss of Neosho
Falls, Kansas, first brought to light the fact that in that locality
the bird invariably nested in holes of trees or buildings. Since
his discovery of the first nest in 1863, others similarly situated
have been found by Dr. Palmer and Mr. Robert Ridgway, at the
Kiowa Agency, Indian Territory, and at Mount Carmel, 111. The
first nest collected the past season was found by Mr. Ridgway on
April 27. It contained four fresh eggs. This was probably an
exceptionally early date, as nearly a week elapsed before any other
eggs were taken; and, indeed, the greater proportion of a lai^
number collected between May 8 and May 12 were freshly
laid. At least forty nests were examined altogether, about one
half of which contained eggs. To give an account of all the vari-
ous situations in which these nests were placed, would ^itail a

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Bbewsteb on the Prothonotary Warbler, 159

description of nearly every conceivable kind of hole or cavity that
can be found in tree-trunks. The typical nesting-site, however, was
the deserted hole of the Downy Woodpecker or Carolina Chickadee.
The height varied from two to fifteen feet, though the usual eleva-
tion was about four. If the cavity was old and broken out, or
otherwise enlarged, it was far more apt to be chosen than a neater
and newer one close at hand. The stump selected almost invaria-
bly stood in or projected over water, although, as above stated, it
was oftentimes left high and dry after the eggs were laid.

Of the many exceptions to the abdve-described typical site, I
will here notice only two of the most marked. A nest discovered
May 8 was built ,in a sort of pocket-shaped cavity in the side of a
large cypress stump. The hole descended vertically in the inside
of the shell-like wall, the central heart of which had crumbled
away. Another, found by Mr. Ridgway, was built in an extremely
rotten snag which stood on the edge of a roc(d ; the eggs or sitting
parent could easily be seen by any one riding by. This nest was
several hundred yards away from water.

In the construction of the nest the female labors somewhat
desultorily. Fresh green moss enters largely hito its composi-
tion, and although this substance is readily obtained, a week is
sometimes consumed in building the simple little affair. Most of
the materials are gathered in the immediate vicinity from half-
submerged logs or the nearest dry ground. The male almost
always accompanies his partner on her trips to and from the nest^
making a great show of hunting up choice bits of material, but
apparently never succeeding in finding any to his mind. He usu-
ally precedes her on her return, enters the hole to investigate the
condition of affairs, pops out his golden head to assure her with a
soft chirp that all is well within, and then gives way to allow her
to enter, clinging against the bark outside to cheer her labors with
his song and await her reappearance. Sometimes, however, both
birds remain inside together, although how much assistance the
male renders in house furnishing I cannot say. Probably his
presence is only tolerated, and he is perhaps often accused of being
a nuisance.

The shape and size of the nest vary with that of the cavity in
which it is placed. When the hole is deep, it is usually filled up to
within four or five inches of the entrance. Thus the nest when
removed presents the appearance of a compact mass of moss ive

Digitized by


160 Brewster on the Prothonotary Warbler,

or six inches in height hy three or four in diameter. When the
cavity is shallow, it is often only scantily lined with moss and a
few fine roots. The deeper nests are of course the more elaborate
ones. One of the finest specimens before me is composed of moss,
dry leaves, and cypress-twigs. The' cavity for the eggs is a neatly
rounded, cup-shaped hollow, two inches in diameter by one and
a half in depth, smoDthly lined with fine roots and a few wing-
feathers of some small bird.

The number of eggs constituting a full set varies to an unusual
degree ; two nests were found, each of which contained seven eggs,
while in another instance a nest, which from its position could not
possibly have been molested, had only one, nearly ready to be
hatched. Out of fifteen sets of eggs taken, two included seven
^gs; three, six; three, five; four, four; two, three; and one, one
egg. The average number is probably five or six. Seventeen
specimens before me "agree pretty well in size and general shape,
nearly all being noticeably blunted at the smaller end. Two
selected as extreme examples measure respectively .73 X .59 and
.67 X .58. The ground-color is clear, lustrous white, with a high
polish. Eggs from different sets vary considerably in markings,
but two types of coloration seem to prevail. In one, spots and
dottings of dull brown with faint submarkings of pale lavender are
generally and evenly distributed over the entire surface. In the
other, bold blotches of bright reddish brown are so thickly laid on,
especially about the larger ends, that the ground-color is in some
instances almost entirely obscured.

In the hope of presenting to the reader's mind some slight idea
of the general character and surroundings of the locality where the
Prothonotary Warblers were found breeding in the greatest abun-
dance, I close with a brief description of a visit, on May 11, to
the Cypress Swamp. Towards the middle of the afternoon we
reached Beaver Dam Pond, and embarked in an old weather-
beaten dugout. Our guide, a half-breed Indian and a most accom-
plished woodsman, took his station in the stem, and with a vigorous
shove upon his long push-pole sent the frail craft well out into the
pond. Before us stretched a long, narrow sheet of water hemmed
in on every side by an unbroken wall of forest trees. Around the
margin grew a fringe of button-bushes, with a sprinkling of tall
slender willows, while behind and above them towered the light-
green feathery crests of numerous cypresses. The low shores were

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Brewster on the Prothonotary Warbler. 161

in many places flooded with water for a considerable distance back
into the woods, to where the land rose in broken ridges and the
cypresses gave way to a growth of oaks, black-walnuts, lindens, and
numerous other forest trees. The depth of the water, even in the
centre of the pond, did not exceed five feet, and over the greater
part of its extent rank grasses, yellow water-lilies, and other
aquatic plants reared their tall stalks or broad leaves in such pro-
fusion, that everywhere, except immediately around the canoe, the
eye rested upon what seemed a meadow of waving green. The few
acres of comparatively open water were sprinkled with watei^lilies
{Nymphxjea odoratd) or thickly studded with the delicate, star-
shaped blossoms of the Cahomba caroliniana^ the moss-like stems of
which extended in a perfect labyrinth beneath the surface. As we
pushed our way through the denser growths, the stems yielded
before the bow with a slight rustling sound. Wood Ducks and
Hooded Mergansers rose on every side, while their broods of downy
ducklings scuttled off among the water-plants, sometimes huddling
close together, a dusky mass of bobbing little forms, at others, when
closely pressed, separating and diving like water-sprites. Overhead,
Buzzards were wheeling in graceful, interminable circlings, while in
their nests upon the tops of some gigantic sycamores, a little back
from the shore, stood a number of Great Blue Herons, their tall
graceful forms boldly outlined against the sky. From the lower
depths of the forest pame innumerable bird voices, — the slow, solemn
chant of the Wood Thrush, the clear, whistled challenge of the
Cardinal, the sweet wild notes of the Louisiana Water Thnish, the
measured pter-dle, pter-dle, pter-dle of the Kentucky Warbler, and
the emphatic song of the Hooded Flycatcher. Higher up among
the^trees Woodpeckers rattled upon dead limbs, a Tanager sang
at intervals, the Tufted Titmouse reiterated its monotonous /)«^o,
petOy and numerous Blue Warblers added their guttiiral little trills
to the general chorus. From all along the pond edges came the
Sandpiper-like song of the Prothonotary Warblers. As we ad-
vanced, the button-bushes gave way to stretches of black willows,
which at the head of the pond formed the exclusive growth over
an area of perhaps six acres. This tract had at one time evidently
formed part of the pond, for as we pushed our canoe in among the
trees we found the water scarcely shallower than in the open

Although the willows grew rather thinly, the spaces between the

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162 BiDGWAY on Birds observed at Mount Cartnel.

living stems were filled with stubs in every stage of decay, and
perforated with countless Woodpecker-holes, most of them old,
and long since given up by their original tenants. That a locality
so favorable in every way had not been overlooked by the Protho-
notary Warblers was soon evinced by the presence of the birds
on all sides in numbers that &r exceeded anything which we had
previously seen, and careful search soon revealed a number of nests.
Probably not less than twenty paurs were here breeding in close
proximity. In the larger holes and among the branches were the
nests of a colony of Graekles (Quiscalus purpuretu), and a few
Woodpeckers and Carolina Titmice were also nesting somewhere in
the vicinity. As we returned down the pond late in the afternoon
the sun was sinking behind the tree-tops. The dying breeze still
agitated the crest of the forest, but not a breath rippled the still
water beneath. The lonely pool rested in deep shadow, save at its
upper end, where the slanting sunbeams still lighted up the group
of willows, bringing out their yellowish foliage in strong relief
against the darker mass behind. The arches of the grand old
woods were filled with a softened, mysterious light, and a solemn
hush and silence prevailed, broken only by the occasional hooting
of a Barred Owl or the song of some small bird among the upper
branches, where the rays of the setting sun still lingered. High in
air, over the open space the Buzzards still wheeled and soared cm
easy wing. Ducks were scurrying about in all directions or plash-
ing down among the lily leaves, and a heavy plunge in shore told
where a startled otter had risen and disappeared. As the last rays
of sunlight touched the top of a mighty sycamore that raised ita
towering head above its fellows, the Herons left their rookery and
laboriously winged their way overhead to some distant feeding-
ground. Long in the writer's memory will linger that last glimpse
of beautiful Beaver Dam Pond.



Although the spring seemed to have opened earlier than usual,
the birds were, strangely enough, behindhand in their northward

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EiDQWAY on Birds observed at Mount Carmel. 163

migration, few of the truly migratory species being there on our
arrival, — the 17th of April. At that date the woods were in
nearly full leaf, the fruit-trees were nearly done blossoming
(several kinds entirely so), and the wheat waist-high. Still there
were no Catbirds, Orioles, Kingbirds, nor Tanagers, all of which
ordinarily reach Mount Carmel by that time. It was nearly a week
before these birds made their appearance ; but after the full tide of
migration set in there was little difference from other seasons, except
the great dearth of transient Warblers, all of which were more or
less rare, while many kinds, usually common, or even abundant,
were not to be seen at all. Thus, there were no Black-throated
Blue, Black-poll, Bay-breasted, Black-capped Green, nor Orange-
crowned Warblers ; only a single individual each of the Golden-
winged, Cape May, Black-throated Green, Chestnut-sided, and
Worm-eating Warblers was noticed, while other migratory spe-
cies were unusually rare. No specimens of the Black-and-yellow
Warbler were detected until the 25th of May, when a pair were
shot in the Cypres^Swamp. The Ibllowing were the most abun-
dant species of this family, named, approximately, in the order of
their numbers : Dendrceca ccmtileay Setopkaga ruticilla^ Oporomis
formosiLS, Protonotarta citreUf Siurus auricapUlus, Myiodioctes mi-
trains, Helminthophaga ptnus, H, peregrina (migratory), Siurus mota-
cilia, Dendrceca dominica albilora, D, cestiva, and Geothlypis triclias.

ThryomanM bewicki. Bewick's Wbsst. — Very abundant, but
confined entirely to dooryards. It was estimated by Mr. Brewster and
myself that in Moimt Carmel there was one pair of this Wren to about
every two dwellings ! The House Wren {TrogHod^ftes aidon) ii entirely
unknown there, the present species wholly replacing it

?? Helinaia awalnsonl. Swainson's Warbler. — In the Cypress
Swamp a bird was several times noticed by Mr. Brewster and myself^
which we both agreed must be this species. It was well seen on several
occasions, and its song heard, while one specimen was shot, but, unfor-
tunately, could not be found* It appeared to have habits somewhat simi-
lar to those of the Prothonotary Warbler, with a song more like that of a
Water Thrush (Siurus motacilla), but weaker, more sprightly, and moce

Helminthophaga plnus. Blue-winged Yellow Warbler. — Very
abundant in old clearings in the bottom-lands.

Dondrcsoa dominioa albilora. Yellow-throated Warbler. —
Common enough, but the most difficult to collect of all the Warblers, on
account of its partiality to the tops of the tallest sycamoie-trees, practi-
cally beyond the reach of small shot. The song strikingly resembles that

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164 BiDGWAY on Birds observed at Mount Carmel.

of the Indigo Bird in ite tone, but is easily recognized from its peculiar

Oporornia formosna. Kentucky Warbleb. — One of the most
abundant of the smaller birds, far exceeding even the Golden-crowned
Thrush in numbers. In its general habits and manners it is much like
the latter species, keeping on or near the ground. The nest is exceedingly
difficult to find, since it is almost impossible to flush the female directly
from it.

Myiodiootet mitratas. Hooded Warbler. — Also an abundant
species in certain parts of the bottoms, but only noticed in those localities
where the switch cane (Arundinaria tecta) forms more or less of the
undergrowth, over which trails the rough, bright green stems and foliage of
a species of Galium^ and, but less frequently, a low-growing or trailing
Smilax (probably S. tralteri). The nest is built with scarcely any attempt
at concealment, in a low bush, from one to two feet from the ground.'

Stelgidopteryx serripennls. Rough- winged Swallow. — More
abundant than CotyU riparia, but, so far as this locality is concerned, of
entirely similar nesting habits. Each, however, generally breeds in col-
onies by itself.

Cbllario ludOTioianna. Loggerhead Shrike. — Common. Although
in j>revious papers I have given the white-rumped form (excubUoroidei) as
the Shrike of this portion of the country, all the specimens obtained dur-
ing my recent visit were perfectly typical of the Southern race.

Pyranga mtiva. Summer Reddird. — Abundant, but almost en-
tirely confined to the more open and dry woods of the uplands, where
very common along the roadsides or among the oak or hickory trees
standing in immediate proximity to farm-houses. Quite similar to P.
rubra in general manners, but notes much stronger and more emphatic,
t|;ie song far finer.

PooBoetaa graminena. Qrass Finch. — Breeds, but is rather uncom-

Chondeatea grammaoa. Lark Finch. — Common summer resi-
dent, partial to roadsides and fallow fields.

Peuona nativaUa. Bachman'b Finch. — Extremely local, and quite
rare. Confined to old fields where dead trees are left standing.

Buapiza amerioana. Black-throated Bunting. — Probably the
most abundant of the Fringillidas, every meadow and grain-field being
inhabited by a number of pairs. Most partial to clover-fields. Known
usually as the *^ Little Field Lark," but, on account of its peculiar songs,
sometimes as the '^ Dick-cissel."

Pipilo erythrophthalmua. Towhee ; Chewink. — Abundant.
Specimens obtained are absolutely typical of the species, none showing
the least approach to P. a/rcticus.

Stnmella magna. Meadow Lark. — Very abundant The Larks of
this district do not tend in any of their characters toward S. neglecta.

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BiDOWAT an Birds observed at Mount Carmel. 165

Bremopbila alpestris. Hornxd Lark. — Abundant in suitable local-
ities. Found mostly on commons and about fallow fields.

Cyanooitta oristata. Blue Jat. — One of the most numerous and
generally distributed of all birds ; also probably the least wary. As an
eyidence of these facts, it may be mentioned that the writer killed five
Blue Jays in two successive shots, without the expectation of killing more
than one at either time.

Mylarohtui orinitns. Qreat-crbsted Fltgatghbr. — The most
abundant of the Flycatchers, and quite familiar, often breeding in boxes
put up for the Martins and Bluebirds.

▲ntroatomtui oarollnensia. Chuok-will'b-widow. — A single speci-
men seen fiying with some Night Hawks (Chordeiles popetue) late one
evening, about the 20th of April It is not an uncommon species, its
notes being frequently heard. Strange to say, however, neither this spe-
cies nor the Whippoorwill was once heard during our visit of six weeks'

Coooysos amerioantui. Yellow-billed Cuckoo. — Extremely
abundant, it being not unusual to hear the notes of half a dozen or more
at the same time. Outnumbers 0. erythrophthalmus in the proportion of

Online LibraryNuttall Ornithological ClubBulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club: a quarterly jjournal of ornithology → online text (page 44 of 50)