Text and photo by Peter Vankevich
For those not that familiar with the birds of the Outer Banks or know that there are many species that poorly named, one may think that the Prairie Warbler on Ocracoke is a rare bird such as the subarctic Razorbill that was featured in last month’s edition.
The term “prairie” referred in the past not only to the treeless grasslands of interior America but also the second-growth areas in the Southeast. The latter is probably how this warbler received it name. Second-growth habitats, where these birds often breed, include the maritime shrub thickets on Ocracoke.
Prairie Warblers (Setophaga discolor) breed across much of the Southeastern United States: as far west as eastern Texas, north through southern Missouri, northeast through southern New England and south to northern Florida. There are a few nesters in Michigan and southern Ontario.
It is a rare bird indeed, to be seen in the prairies of the Midwest. They winter primarily in Florida and on islands in the Caribbean.
Although a few may winter through North Carolina, the vast majority return starting in early April.
Colorful birds, Prairie Warblers have olive-green upper parts, yellow throats, breasts and underparts, and rufous streaks on the back. They have black streaks on the sides and a dark line through the eyes.
Adult females are similar, but are paler and lack the black marks on the head. A similar appearing species is the Pine Warbler, but this bird is larger and doesn’t normally share the same habitat.
The easiest way to identify these warblers during breeding season is their distinctive song, described as rapid series of ascending buzzes and they are often heard before being seen.
Yet another field mark, the Prairie Warbler will bob its tail. The only other warbler that does this on Ocracoke is the Palm Warbler (another misnamed bird) which migrates through in good numbers in the fall.
Prairie Warblers can be found primarily on the sound side of the island. One of the best locations on Ocracoke to see and hear them is to take a walk along Devil Shoals Road, formerly known as Dump Station Road, located across Highway 12 from the Ocracoke Campground.
Changes resulting from human activity such as forest clear-cutting, forest fires, abandoned farms and clearings under power lines, described as early successional habitats, create new scrub-land breeding habitats for these warblers.
On the other hand, urbanization, reforestation and loss of suitable habitat, both for breeding and wintering grounds, are these birds’ greatest threats.
They are also susceptible to parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird and nest predation by snakes, chipmunks, Blue Jays and crows.
Females lay between two to five eggs and the male assists in feeding the young. The young will leave the nest within two weeks though the parents will continue to feed them. They will often produce two broods per season.
Like many North American warblers, they feed primarily on insects, spiders and other small invertebrates.
(Audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)
When to see: Early spring into summer. Rare winter resident
Where: Maritime shrub thickets on soundside of island.