NATURE’S VIEW – A visit with the eloquent denizen of the cypress swamp, Story and photographs by Jim Clark

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

The charm of its haunts and the beauty of its plumage combine to render the prothonotary warbler among the most attractive members of the family.—Frank Chapman, ornithologist, 1907

Many nature photographers have locations or subjects that have been a desire or challenge to photograph. It may take years—sometimes, a lifetime—for a photographer to achieve a certain photographic goal. Indeed, it may never happen. The charm is that the photographer never gives up.

For years I wanted to photograph the prothonotary warbler, a beautiful yellow and orange warbler of the bottomland wetlands and cypress swamps. In the spring of 2013, that goal became a reality. It was a matter of being a naturalist first and photographer second. Knowing about the subject and using my skills at anticipating a moment and chasing one all played a part. Steadfast determination and persistence had something to do with it as well.

I read about the natural history of the prothonotary, the only warbler of the eastern United States that nests in tree cavities. I knew the bald cypress swamps on Maryland’s eastern shore were its prime habitat, but finding just the right location took a bit of investigation. I prefer not to be surrounded by hordes of other photographers, so I looked for a location off the beaten path. I found my “prothonotary” spot through a recommendation from a fellow birder, and I spent one glorious spring day in Maryland’s primeval cypress swamps bordering the dark-stained waters of the Pocomoke River.

The morning started with thick fog, but soon the skies cleared and the swamp filled with the songs from a host of warblers, vireos and tanagers. The swamp was festooned with soft emerald-green colors of the emerging leaves of sweet gum, red maple and tupelo. Beds of pink lady’s slippers decorated the forest floor. Thick labyrinths of greenbrier and poison ivy provided just enough of a challenge for me as I hiked with a 600mm telephoto lens with a Fresnel flash system on a very heavy tripod.

Pink Lady's Slipper, Pocomoke State Forest, Maryland

Pink Lady’s Slipper, Pocomoke State Forest, Maryland

I recognized the song of the prothonotary warbler—a constant sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet cadence—and located a singing male and his mate. The warblers were tolerant of me as they searched for insects in the tree canopy and along the lower shrubs. I was even able to use an 80-400mm lens to capture images as the pair posed right next to me.

When the warblers flew to another area of the swamp, I stayed put and waited, knowing they would return later to start their feeding circuit all over again. With the exception of the short time it took to hike back to my car to have lunch, I remained in that one spot from sunrise to sunset.

As the light faded at day’s end, I reluctantly said my goodbyes to my newfound feathered friends. Capturing their images wasn’t just another feather for my photographic cap, but also a memory of a wonderful day in a wonderful location with a wonderful member of the bird family.

A past NANPA president, Jim Clark is the nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia, and a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer magazine. Jim currently serves as photographer-in-residence at the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve near his home in Leesburg, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son, Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at, blog at or like him on Facebook.

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