Backyard gold
(published 5-15-08)

Last Friday an earthquake woke me up. Then a bird rocked my world.

The quake that all Chicago was talking about occurred at 4:36 a.m. and measured 5.2 on the Richter scale. That's a big one, and it really did interrupt my slumber. But what really gave me a jolt was the Prothonotary Warbler that visited my yard a few hours later. It was a first for my Yard List, species No. 105, and quite possibly the best. Bright, unmistakable and so unexpected. It was all of these things.

It was also my first warbler of the spring. What a start!

Funny, the day before, a Prothonotary Warbler was reported at Lyman Woods on IBET, the birding list-serve. I remember seeing that post and thinking I might go over to Lyman on Friday and try to see it. It would only be a 5-mile drive. Turns out the bird came to me.

To say the least, Prothonotary Warbler is not a bird I ever expected to see in the yard. They like stagnant water and swamps. That's the habitat where I saw my first Prothonotary--in Tampa, in 1998. It would be five years before I saw my second, at Kiawah Island, S.C.

But during migration, birds turn up in odd places. Almost anything is possible.

I saw the bird immediately as I stepped into the backyard to begin my daily spring ritual of scattering millet and cracked corn for the birds. There, climbing on the fence vines about 40 feet away was a glowing yellow bird. Not a goldfinch, I knew that. But my binoculars were inside!

I dashed in the house and quickly focused my bins on the fence, looking through the sliding door in our kitchen. The bird was still there, practically posing. That's when I knew for sure, a Prothonotary! I hustled back outside and enjoyed a few more good looks from even closer range.

It's quite possible that I was still in shock at that point. How else to explain my next move? I raced upstairs to alert my wife about the bird. Two problems. One, she was still asleep. Two, she's not a birder. But hey, we're talking about a Prothonotary Warbler here! Maybe the only time one will ever visit the yard! Sensing the urgency--or more likely, just humoring me--Catherine climbed out of the sack and stumbled over to the bathroom window that overlooks our backyard. But too late, the warbler was out of sight. Oh well, there will be other chances. Just not in this lifetime.

I went back downstairs and looked again but no luck. But that was okay, I'd had enough luck already.

Then I started thinking. Where was the bird now? Did anyone else in the neighborhood see it and appreciate it? Where would the bird be at the end of the day? Oh, and did it feel the earthquake, too?

Another question I had was off the wall: When an unusual bird like this comes around, do the other birds notice? My 7-year-old son and I answered that question with another: How could they not? To a House Sparrow, for example, a Prothonotary Warbler would almost certainly be a new and unusual sight.

It doesn't matter, of course. The warbler was just living its life, and that morning I was living mine in exactly the right place at the right time.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.