By Joe Brehm, Environmental Education Director
As we tiptoed along the overgrown trail at Greendale Wetland, one male prothonotary warbler sang its rich, direct song. One of the field trip participants came down all the way from Maine for the Birds in the Hills Festival, and the prothonotary was one species he really wanted to see. I had seen them at Greendale Wetland many times before, but there are no guarantees with wild creatures. Walking slowly towards the prothonotary’s song, we gazed at wood ducks paddling furtively, eastern kingbirds buzzing around catching insects out of the air, courting baltimore orioles, flushed a mourning dove off its nest and gawked at the one pink egg therein.
Another prothonotary warbler began singing across the wetland. As we crept forward, one of the males flew closer and landed on a sycamore branch out over the water. It was impossible to miss; the bird’s head was ablaze with yellow orange colors like it was a tiny but potent piece of the sun with feathers. The birder from Maine got his binoculars locked on the glowing life form and gasped reflexively, “oh my god!” The phrase he purely and instinctually uttered gave voice to the group’s collective sense of astonishment that something like this bird – its strong vibrant song, brave curiosity, and jaw-dropping color – even exists in the world. It may not be a stretch to say that the instant we observed the warbler was akin to enlightenment. For this brief time we simply beheld beauty in prothonotary form, astounded. David James Duncan, one of the mystics of our time, said of enlightenment in a recent interview that “the goal is simply wonder.”
I’ve realized that gasps of incredulity like this are the pinnacle of what people may experience at our events. There is only so much I or any other human can do to inspire environmental stewardship; the prothonotary warbler and its wild kin are much more effective. After the gasp, one naturally cares more deeply about wetlands, wildlife migration corridors, and public land because these things are necessary to produce the immeasurable beauty that pierces our own wild souls.
It takes a lot of hard work to create opportunities for such transformative moments. Thankfully, my colleague Madison took on all of this hard work so that I and other festival goers could bask in the beauty of birds together. She’ll be up to much more of this throughout the year, so check out other upcoming opportunities to soak in the natural wonders around us with Appalachian Understories.
(Field Notes is an occasional series that takes readers into local forests to learn about our natural world. Become a citizen scientist and join the more than 607 volunteers who have contributed close to 20,000 observations via iNaturalist to our “bioblitz” of the WNF’s Athens Unit, documenting roughly 3,904 species of plants, insects, fungi, mammals, birds, and more. You can join us by following instructions here.)