Project Prothonotary

Project Prothonotary is a wildlife initiative implemented in 2017 to verify this habitat-specific, neo-tropical migrant is utilizing Foundation wetlands as breeding habitat.

With this year’s success, and upon acquisition of appropriate funding, the project will be extended into 2018 and expanded to cover additional wetlands in the Roanoke River Drainage. The Foundation hopes to substantially increase the number of fabricated nesting facilities for a species in decline due to wetland habitat loss. Project Prothonotary, 2018, will also be used to enlighten students, teachers, and the general public, especially private landowners, about natural resource stewardship responsibilities.

Project planning began during January and focused on funding, box construction, and landowner communications. The goal was to have 100 nesting boxes in place (from Brookneal, Virginia downstream to Kerr Reservoir, up the Banister in Halifax County, and along the Dan River upstream past South Boston) by the first week of April - no small task! Amazingly, 106 boxes were constructed and erected in great, wetland habitat by April 6th. Keep in mind, this project was based on the discovery of seven breeding pairs of prothonotary warblers at the Cove in 2017 and, other than a few recorded sightings by local birders, there was no proof the targeted area was primary breeding habitat for this handsome Neo-tropical migrant. And while VCU has conducted a prothonotary warbler project along the Lower James River for decades, no study has ever been attempted in the upper region of the 9,580 square-mile Roanoke River Basin that stretches from the Blue Ridge Mountains, through Virginia and North Carolina’s Piedmont, to the Albemarle Sound.

To put things in perspective, Project Prothonotary was not solely about propagation of prothonotary warblers! Even though overall populations are estimated to be down as much as 40 percent across historical ranges (because of wetland losses), VDGIF biologists feel numbers in the Commonwealth are stable. The Foundation conducted this study, in part, to determine if wetlands adjacent to the Staunton, Banister, and Dan Rivers (in the counties of Campbell, Charlotte, Halifax, and Mecklenburg) were a major component of the bird’s breeding habitat. From that point of view the project was successful. By June, the WBWF had recorded 108 prothonotaries either nesting in the boxes or in close proximity. It was my pleasure to observe males singing to establish territorial parameters, males placing tidbits of moss in boxes, males defending their territories from other males, copulation, males and females fending off Eastern bluebirds and Carolina wrens, birds feeding on aquatic insects, females building nests, females incubating eggs, adults feeding babies, and young birds preparing to fledge.

Was every box utilized by prothonotary warblers? No, some were adopted by Carolina chickadees, tree swallows, Carolina wrens, and angry red wasps! And while strides were taken to install the boxes in the best habitat, a select few were used to test the bird’s resolve regarding site discovery and selection. Ideal habitat turned out to be isolated areas with standing, shallow water and lots of black willows

Prothonotary warbler egg in nest. Nesting material: moss, twigs, plant fibers, dried grasses, grass stems, rootlets, dried catkins,
willow leaves, etc.

Every project has negatives, and Project Prothonotary was no different. With May came the joy of eggs in the boxes and the dismay of flooding. For sure, with its many confluents, the Roanoke River watershed is susceptible to high waters! Yet, even with over 4 inches of rain falling in early May, most of the boxes remained above water. Two weeks later, however, 9 inches of torrential rainfall sealed the deal. As luck would have it, many of those facilities were several feet beneath the muddy waters. Yet, some in isolated beaver swamps remained high and dry. Too, the flooding seemed to throw the males into disarray; during June, in one small wetland, there were 5 males singing near an active nest, which kept the resident male overly engaged. Ironically, optimistic males continued serenading near the flooded-out sites throughout the breeding season. And, yes, some of the boxes were reused after the waters subsided; one pair even had two broods. Not to be overlooked, the flood waters washed away a number of beaver dams - leaving what once had been fantastic wetland habitat, dry and weed-choked. No doubt, warblers that chose natural cavities were disrupted, as well. And for the record, there was the Eastern black snake that discovered the nest of babies on Banister Lake, and 2 boxes destroyed by floating logs at Kerr, and another targeted by a black bear at the Cove. At Fort Pickett, three boxes (and one with a nest and eggs) were overtaken by massive colonies of red ants.

If providing nesting boxes to increase the number of warblers was not the Foundation’s main goal what was the purpose? Primarily, it was making the general public aware of the bird’s presence and the fact they are ambassadors for a vital component of our environment. Prothonotary warblers are synonymous with wetlands, which serve as filters for pollution and niches for a diverse community of plant and animal life - and worthy of protection. Though word-of-mouth, newspaper and magazine articles, outdoor programming and, perhaps the most effective means of communication - social media, the Foundation has educated hundreds of thousands of people about a little, yellow bird most folks never knew existed.

Now, as the Foundation prepares to conduct outreach programs in the classroom (while developing a means of sharing information via virtual reality devices), the project will offer elementary teachers and students firsthand information to support mandated Standards of Learning materials. From that standpoint, the project is a win-win for the Foundation, schools, the general public, the prothonotary warbler, and our natural environment!

The Prothonotary Warbler Banquet was held on September 6, 2018, at The Prizery in South Boston, VA, to share the results of this year-long project with landowners who hosted nesting boxes, adopters of the nesting boxes, and many who contributed to the success of this project.

Our event was well attended with 150 people coming out to share in this experience with us.