Prairie Warbler

Setophaga discolor

prairie warbler

Prairie warbler, photographed at Yamato Scrub Natural Area, Boca Raton, Palm Beach County, in April 2018.

The odd thing about the prairie warbler, Setophaga discolor, is its name. The last place you'd expect to find this bird is the prairies.

Instead, they inhabit forestss and the edges forests throughout the eastern United States. A subspecies that's found only in Florida, called the Florida prairie warbler, S d paludicola, appropriately enough prefers mangrove forests of all things. It's found along both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts mostly in the extreme South Florida, including the Florida Keys.

The most common of the bird's two subspecies is called the northern prairie warbler, and is also found in the Sunshine State as both a year-round resident and as a migrant on its way to winter in the Caribbean. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the northern subspecies is a relatively new resident of Florida, nesting here only since the latter half of the 20th century.

According to both Cornell University's Ornithology Laboratory and Audubon Society range maps, Florida is the only state where the prairie warbler resides year round. Farther north, to Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, it's a summer resident. Its range also extends as far west and Missouri and northeastern Texas.

Prairies flick their tails, though not as constantly as their palm warbler cousins. Their bodies are bright yellow underneath, with brown steaking along the sides of the chest, similar to a yellow warbler. Unlike the yellow, it has a dark face mask, with a broad yellow eyebrow; and the top of the skull is also dark. Males are olive-green above, with some red markings. Females are duller, and the side stripes are less distinct. They are small birds, with a body length that barely exceeds four inches.

Northern prairie warblers' preferred habitats include "forest edges, pine barrens, and shrubby second-growth forests," according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In Florida, northern prairie warblers hang out in "young pine-hardwood stands." In winter, they're commonly found throughout the state.

Florida prairie warblers are mostly concentrated in extreme South Florida, but have been found nesting as far north as Brevard and rarely Flagler counties on the Atlantic Coast, which is about as far north as mangroves might be found. Generally, in Brevard, mangrove forests start giving way to salt marshes. Prairies on occasion will nest in live oak trees.

Prairie warblers forage along the lower branches of trees for insects and spiders, sometimes taking them on the fly, sometimes hovering to pick off bugs from the undersides of leaves or spiders from their webs. They'll hang upside down to grab a meal or drop to ground.

Males will sing to woo a mate. They'll also do an aerial dance of sorts and will chase after the ladies. Females select the nest site and construct a cup-like nest made of plant fibers and lined with grasses, mosses, feathers and animal hairs. Females will lay a clutch of three to five eggs, which will take about two weeks to incubate. Females do all of the sitting. Offspring will fledge in eight to 12 days, but their parents will continue to care for them for about 40 or 50 days. Males are territorial, and will return to the same breeding area year after year. Females won't necessarily follow them.

There are some subtle physical differences between the two subspecies; the Florida birds are slightly larger and have white spots in the tail. The Florida has been listed as a species of special concern, because of a decline in its mangrove habitat and because of an invasion of cowbirds. Cowbird females deposit their eggs in the nests of other species rather than rear their own young. In many bird species, unsuspecting parents devote energy to the invaders' offspring that normally would go to their own. Prairie warblers are members of Parulidae, the their own family. Prairie warblers instead abandon their nest altogether if a cowbird has done her thing. Mangroves are now protected, which helps the prairie. Unfortunately there's still the cowbird problem. An alternative scientific name: Dendroica discolor.

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Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.