Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Golden Swamp Warbler

It's essential for me to get away from the city from time to time. The charm and solace of an urbanized natural area can quickly vanish, especially on weekends. Those who visit such a place with an interest in a passive nature activity like birding must contend with sounds emanating from the woods that clamor "multi-use, multi-use!" Oh, birding isn't impossible, but one's enjoyment of it becomes diminished by competing noise. Sadly, this wasn't always the case at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, but I'm sure the overwhelming majority of Middleton's residents see the paved trail as an improvement. It isn't.

May Apple

I don't want to have to step out of someone's way or keep looking over my shoulder for approaching bicyclists. I don't want to hear "passing on your left" or have someone's dog stick its snout in my crotch. I simply want to hike a trail adorned with wildflowers, where I can occasionally sit, be idle, and not have to move for anything. In tolerating change, I recommend (to myself) balancing Pheasant Branch with places that have just one road in and promise that the only sounds heard will be wild things. If I neglect to do this, sometimes I begin to feel my cynicism and temperament simmer for what's been lost.

Nodding Trillium

Woodland Phlox

The purity of nature unbridled and her vast rewards are decidedly priceless. Walking at such a place is like stepping into a kind of time machine. I'm transported to a state that probably resembles Wisconsin before we Europeans arrived. It's a locale like this where I can patiently wait for something to absorb and photograph things that interest me in complete tranquility. I can gain a sense of what it must have been like for 19th century naturalists and explorers. Sometimes good fortune smiles upon the secluded with an opportunity to bear witnesses to something previously unseen.

The Prothonotary Warbler's song is unmistakable to the birder and nature enthusiast. A glimpse by the uninitiated might casually suggest an unusual looking goldfinch. The golden swamp warbler can be pretty elusive, even for birders, but his voice gives him away. I know he's near, but where? Wait - there! Directly above me in a maple tree!

To my utter astonishment, the warbler dropped to a lower perch, then cautiously and deliberately made his way to a particular moss-covered log near where I was sitting. Singing as he worked, he began pealing off the moss, cramming as much as he could in his beak. To my fortune, once wasn't enough! The sprightly warbler continued to make return visits to the log for additional nesting material.

It was immediately obvious that the moss was material he was collecting for a nearby nest he was busily constructing in a cavity of a dead tree. I wondered if his mate was present yet. Oh, there's such great treasure out there, my friends. It can be challenging to find, but if one knows where to look and what to listen for, a sweet golden bird can render undiluted joy and exhilaration!

Man changes the conditions to suit the things.
Nature changes the things to suit the conditions.

- John Burroughs

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell


  1. Wow, what a moment! Thanks for taking us along.

  2. Wonderful blog post Mike. I also yearn for a place to enjoy the treasures nature has to offer us. Sadly, my favorite marsh has an ugly chainlink fenced in area, known as a "dogpark" and if that weren't bad enough, last summer they decided to put an asphalt bike path through the whole thing!

  3. Thank you Mike. What a nice read to start off my day.

  4. WOW...these may be tough to top, I know you'll keep trying....wish we would realize we need more spaces like PB, not less!

  5. What a perfectly peaceful sight. So wonderful that you were able to capture it. I have never seen a golden swamp warbler. Sounds like the stuff of myths and legends like the search for the golden fleece! Looks like you found the best treasure of all. And I totally agree with you on wanting to be in the woods alone with only the sounds of nature!

  6. Thanks, again, for a great post.

  7. Thanks! The warbler was a pleasure to watch and record!

    Mike M.

  8. Wow Mike - every time I think your photography couldn't possibly get better, you prove me wrong. Your nature scenes are perfection - you take the simple and make it dazzle and mesmerize. Kudos! And then to see and photograph the Golden Swamp Warlber? Frosting on the cake...what a day you had!

  9. Interesting that I should have read this post before heading out to High Cliff on Sunday. We were walking through the "prairie" there and looking at a Dickcissel and Bobolink when suddenly we hear a "Watch out". I immediately turned thinking something was wrong only to see a biker 100ft from us on the trail. I was astounded by his absolute rudeness, instead of excuse me, or on your left or something like that, he merely says watch out. Wish there were more places that are not so multi use,. maybe with no trails and unpaved with a hike of several miles in front of you. Alas, there really isn't anything like that in Wis anymore

  10. I got lost in Baxter's Hollow one time. :)