The Prothonotary Warbler is a small song-bird that breeds in the Eastern US and winters in Central America and northern South America. It is pretty rare here in Nova Scotia, although one is probably seen annually, and we can wait a long time between sightings. Isn’t it therefore ironic that, this April, three turned up at once?
The first was on a kelp bed at Sandy Cove, just outside Halifax. We were due to head up for an appointment, the day after it was found, so we decided to ‘twitch’ the bird and stay over. It was a nice sighting, but a little distant across a small stream. The bird was unbothered by its new-found fame and remained on its kelp, with the healthy population of flies, for several weeks. It was odd to see this bird out in the open in this way; the first one Mark and I had seen was buried deep in woods around a small pond at the Boy Scout Woods reserve in Texas, and indeed, their preferred habitat is hardwood bog.
Hot on its heels, another bird was found at Taylor Head Provincial Park near Sheet Harbour, again on the beach wrack. We did not go for this one, as it was even further away than Sandy Cove, but it was interesting to note. Finally, a third bird, a very handsome, probably male, bird was located at Pubnico Point. This one was just down the road from us and therefore merited a visit. It was again in the kelp beds near the trail and occasionally flitted up to a bare-branched bush right on the edge of the trail. Here it was unfazed by birders, photographers and occasional lady joggers with iPhones blaring rock music (she was very apologetic!). Even I was able to get some reasonable shots using my 35x optical zoom bridge camera, and one, shown below, was the inspiration for this painting.
For what is ostensibly a yellow and grey bird, there are a lot of colours in that plumage! It also gave me the chance to use some yellows, surprisingly neglected in my pencil sets, considering how many yellow bird there are, out there. I will have to work on more North American warblers. I liked the juxtaposition of the colourful little bird with the browns and greys of the background and branches, and hoped I could make a reasonable picture of it.
Again I was drawn to a mixture of the Derwent watercolours and Caran d’Ache Supracolors. The Derwents had perfect yellows for the head and breast feathers, and a blue-grey pencil that I have found invaluable on several pictures, and proved to be just the thing for the predominant colour for the back and tail feathers. The Supracolors have a great selection of greys, grey-browns and browns that provided the perfect look for the wings. I am particularly fond of a wonderful set of olive green tints in the Supracolors, namely olive yellow, khaki green, light olive, olive grey, olive, olive brown and olive black. You would not think that you could get seven different hues from olive, but they are all different and have been excellent for lichens, mosses and other greenery, as well as the back plumage of this bird.
‘Prothonotary Warbler’, 8 x 10 inch watercolour pencil (Derwent Watercolour, Caran d’Ache Supracolor) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).
In case you were wondering about the derivation of the name ‘prothonotary’, the birds are supposedly named after a rank of senior clergy in the Roman Catholic church, although why so is a bit of a mystery. It certainly isn’t because the plumage resembles the robes they wear, since the clergymen wear purple! I’m also sure that protonotaries apostolistic (note the different spelling too!) don’t hang about in hardwood bogs, either. The word is also used for a principal clerk in a court, dating from the time of the Byzantine Empire. It is still used in some parts of the world, notably in Nova Scotia, PEI and, previously, Quebec; the Federal Court of Canada (where they are judicial officers, not clerks); Pennsylvania in the US; and New South Wales and Victoria in Australia. Not sure if any of these officials have yellow and grey robes! Thanks to Wikipedia for the info on this.