HARLEYVILLE — For weeks the bright yellow flash of the tiny bird could be seen within 15 feet of the boardwalk at Beidler Forest. Then it left the continent.
When the prothonotary warbler returned in the spring, Matt Johnson removed a geolocator chip that could help change the fate of these popular but declining songbirds, helping protect them across their range.
Everybody knew warblers migrated incredible distances each winter. Nobody realized quite how far. This bird — small enough to wrap up in your hand — had flown through Florida, Cuba, Central America, down to the Pacific coast of Colombia and back to Four Holes Swamp and the same stretch of boardwalk where it had been netted in 2014.
It was an odyssey of 4,000 miles with enough perils along the way that the Audubon Beidler Forest Sanctuary staff named the bird Longshot.
“He returned to within 10 or 15 feet of where he lived the previous year,” said Johnson, education manager for the cypress bottoms sanctuary outside Harleyville.
The prothonotary warbler, with its striking deep yellow head and chest, is the eye-catching songbird of the Southeast bottomlands. It’s a personable native bird — not as apt to fly off as other species, and seeming to be almost curious as humans approach.
Like a lot of songbird species, it’s in a long-term decline, one of a number of species that conservationists have begun tracking by geolocators, to get a fix on the environs where they migrate, in order to work with groups in those countries to protect habitats along the entire range.
For small creatures, the birds can cover astounding numbers of miles. Plovers, the flitting little shorebirds in the beachwash, head out to the Arctic each summer. Red knots, larger rust-breasted shorebirds, migrate in a range from the Arctic to Cape Horn in South America, sometimes stopping over and occasionally stopping in the Lowcountry.
The distance a red knot travels over the course of its life has been compared to flying to the moon. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources, working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has placed 84 geolocators on red knots in South Carolina and recovered 11. The birds have flown from Cuba to the Arctic.
Longshot now is not only a wonder, it’s invaluable science, “one of the first confirmed southern migration routes for a South Carolina bird of this species,” Johnson said.
Beidler staff were watching and listening for Longshot last April as Johnson led a birdwatching group along the boardwalk. The bird has a distinct pitch drop in the middle of what is usually a single pitch “swee swee swee” warbler call.
Johnson figured he might have to scour the swamp for a mile or so to find him, if the bird managed to make it. Then he heard the distinct pitch-drop call.
“I definitely had chills,” he said. The results from data downloaded from the locator were returned recently to the sanctuary.
Prothonotary warblers are found in summer from South Carolina to East Texas. The geolocator work is part of a study being undertaken in a number of Southeastern states, among agencies including the National Audubon Society and the wildlife service.
The biologists knew the birds went south. But Longshot’s ocean-to-ocean, continent-to-continent trek still surprised them.
“Pretty amazing,” said Craig Watson, service wildlife biologist.
Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this story contained an error.
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