Project Protho

This Prothonotary is named Trillium, and was banded at Beidler in 2016. Photo: Joan Eckhart
This Prothonotary is named Trillium, and was banded at Beidler in 2016. Photo: Joan Eckhart

Project Protho

There’s only one way to know where a migratory bird overwinters:  strap a tiny tracking device to its back. 

Why bother?  Because that’s the only way we can protect the birds both here, and there.  It’s called “full lifecycle conservation,” and it’s been the basis of some amazing success stories.

The Bahamas, for example, are a paradise for seabirds and shorebirds:  federally-listed Piping Plovers, federally-threatened Red Knots, Reddish Egrets, Clapper Rails, and more.  So Audubon recently teamed up with the government of the Bahamas to protect 92,000 acres there, just for the birds.

Inspired by this success story, Audubon South Carolina started tracking a bird that’s near and dear to our hearts, the Prothonotary Warbler.  One-quarter of “prothos” worldwide need South Carolina habitat to survive. 

Yes, we’ve got to protect local habitat.  But that's not enough.  We’ve also got to find out where prothos winter in order to arrest a population decline of more than 40 percent since the 1960s. 

So we’re now capturing prothos at Beidler Forest  eight of them in 2016  and attaching tiny electronic "backpacks."  In 2017 we recaptured and gathered data from several of those birds, and in 2018 we'll expand the effort to a large Santee Cooper property in Moncks Corner.  What we learn will be combined with data from similar investigations throughout the Southeast.

Eventually we hope to partner with bird lovers wa-a-ay south of here . . . to make sure these cheerful yellow birds continue to return to Beidler year after year.


A Project Protho slideshow by Aaron Angel
A long distance migrant: Prothonotary Warblers are a cavity nesting bird whose habitat has been declining to the point where they've been listed as a species of special conservation concern.
Long-term data collection: By banding birds with color bands on their legs we can identify them as individuals, which then allows us to collect data such as behavior, territory, and migration time. Other data collected at time of capture includes weight, sex, age, wing length, tail length, flight feather wear, fat, and tarsus (leg) length.
Banding nestling Prothonotary Warbelrs: Only about half of juveniles survive past their first year, but by banding them from the nest we can get a more accurate assessment for their age when they are recaptured. Because of size constraints, there is a short window for banding nestlings, only on five days after they've hatched to ten days, a few days longer than that and they fledge from the nest.
Spring thru Summer as a Bird Conservation Technician: Technicians scout on the property for unbanded male Prothonotarys, taking advantage of the warblers' territorial behavior for targeted capture. Technicians also document resightings, check over 25 nest boxes throughout the swamp and monitoring the ones in use, and helping to capture and band them. In 2021, 13 adults, 2 hatch years, and 18 nestlings were banded!
Meet the 2021 Prothonotary Warblers
From top left to right: A prothonotary checks out a hollow in a tree limb. A male raises its head and sings in its territory. A prothonotary clings to the side of a cypress knee. Four nestlings are crammed into a nest box. Bottom left to right: A prothonotary wrestles with an insect almost as large as it is. A fuzzy hatchling is held in cupped hands. A fledgling stands on a branch.
Azalea has a red over orange band and was banded here in 2019.
Tupelo (left, female) has a double green band and was banded in 2021, while Mistletoe (right, male) has a double white and was banded in 2020. They built a nest together in one of our nest boxes.
Maple (male) has double red bands and was banded this year, and often sang around the visitor center.
Magnolia (male) has a white over yellow band, was banded in 2020, and nested in a natural hole in a cypress knee.
Sparkleberry (male), has a white over blue band, was banded in 2020, and mated with Laurel, she has a red over white band.
Dogwood (male) has a double white band, and was banded as Beidler in 2018, making him presently the oldest warbler to return to nest here.
Violet (male) red over blue, banded in 2021, and is known for his odd song. We're curious to see if he finds a mate next year.
Scarlet (male) has orange over red, banded in 2021, and is named for both his band colors and for a young girl who got to witness him being banded firsthand.
Future work for the program: continue monitoring and recapturing banded birds, deploy Motus nanotags (tracking devices) to learn their migration route, and work with other groups located along the warblers' migration route to ensure they're protected start to finish.

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On April ‎16, ‎2014, this bird, named "Longshot" was the first Prothonotary Warbler in Four Holes Swamp to be equipped with a geolocator and released Photo: Richard Covey
On April ‎16, ‎2015, Longshot was caught again after returning from Colombia, South America on his annual migration. Here the sensor of the geolocator is visible. Photo: Marcie Daniels
Geolocators have to be extremely light, less than a quarter (5.7 grams, 0.2 ounces) or it's too heavy for the bird. Photo: Richard Covey
Here's the route Longshot took traveling down to Colombia.

Want more details?  Check out the press clips below.  Want to volunteer?  Please be in touch!

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