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Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Great Dismal Experience: Swainson's Warbler

[Great Dismal Swamp, Suffolk, VA. April 2014]

There are some warblers that demand attention by virtue of their flashy brilliance. Swainson's Warbler is not one of them. Instead, this plain, visually non-descript, "little brown job" of a warbler is as visually unremarkable as they come. Indeed, although unrelated, it looks more like the drab warblers of the Old World.

However, Swainson's Warbler's beautiful song, secretive habits and ability to blend into the background make it one of our least observed, and hence, one of our most desirable warblers.

As an uncommon songbird, it is rarely sighted although it ranges in a wide swathe of the Southeastern US reaching as far North as Virginia. Indeed, it is in Virginia that one of the more recommended places to see Swainson's Warbler is located -- at Great Dismal Swamp NWR.

 The fabled Swainson's Warbler seen at Great Dismal Swamp

A "quick drive" of 880 miles from Naples, FL to Suffolk, VA will get you to Great Dismal Swamp. This National Wildlife Refuge is described, in its own words, as preserving: "... the largest intact remnant of a vast habitat that once covered more than one million acres of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina."

 The amazingly non-descript Swainson's Warbler

Swainson's Warbler seen at Great Dismal Swamp

Named by J. J. Audubon after William John Swainson in 1834, it is the 3rd bird in the US to carry his name (the others being Swainson's Thrush and Hawk). 

 Swainson's Warbler 

At 6 inches, this is a large warbler; about 1 and a half times the size of Lucy's Warbler and larger than the Prothonotary Warbler.


Swainson's Warbler has pale undersides with olive-brown upperparts. It has a thin white supercilium and a dark eyestripe. Unlike other warblers, Swainson's is not sexually dimorphic and both males and females look alike. They overwinter in the Caribbean and Mexico; the global population is merely 74,000 hence warranting a place on the Audubon Society Watchlist.

Other observations included Black-throated Blue and Prothonotary Warblers (the latter being an abundant breeder at the Swamp while the former is a Spring migrant) and a Carolina Wren:

 Black-throated Blue Warbler

 Carolina Wren


Prothonotary Warbler

Observing Swainson's Warbler in its summer breeding grounds in Virginia is a special experience; special enough that the observer would think they are birding at Great Sublime Swamp. Regardless of the name, Great Dismal Swamp is anything but when the sweet song of the Swainson's Warbler rings in every corner.

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