by by Gary Pendleton
A Pair of Rarities
24-karat prothonotary warblers in ancient cypress trees
The land slopes steeply down to the bottom, becoming a flat, wet floor at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp. Looking upward, you feel you have entered an amphitheater of filtered light. The cinnamon-colored trunks of the bald cypress — so called because, unlike most conifers, they drop their leaves in winter — are like great buttressed columns. Bald cypress trees grow taller than any tree east of the Rockies, and they are known to live for 1,000 years or longer.
Red maples, arrowwood, viburnum and other woody plants fill in the lower levels of the forest. Sound has a different quality here, too, seeming muffled as when there is deep snow. The feeling here is timeless. You can’t help but slow down and breathe a little more deeply. The trail is short, so I take my time, stopping frequently to look and listen.
I like to visit in all seasons. The swamp is beautiful in winter. With the leaves off the trees, you can see the bowl-like shape of the land, and you are protected from the wind. It’s then a good place to look for hermit thrushes, winter wrens, kinglets and woodpeckers.
In April, the buds on the trees and shrubs swell and open, jack-in-the-pulpit emerges from the swamp floor and Parula warblers sing their buzzy song. Next come scarlet tanagers and that denizen of southern swamps, the prothonotary warbler.
Male prothonotary warblers have a deep, rich golden color. If a goldfinch is 18 karat, then prothonotaries are 24. They are named after the College of Prothonotaries Apostolic of the Catholic Church. These clerics — who sign Papal Bulls and record canonizations of saints — wear saffron-colored cowls.
Few, if any, birds have played such a crucial role in a chapter of history as has the prothonotary warbler. A State Department official named Alger Hiss was on trial, charged with supplying classified documents to the Soviet Union. Hiss was a bird watcher. A question about a prothonotary warbler was a turning point in the trial. The story goes that when asked if he had ever seen a prothonotary warbler, Hiss hesitated. The purpose of the question was to establish whether Hiss ever frequented the location where the drop was made. The awkward pause damaged his credibility and contributed to the guilty verdict. Partisans still debate Hiss’ actual guilt or innocence.
Scientists believe that swamps containing cypress, tupelo, sweet gum and alder existed as far north as Maine during the late Miocene Period, four to seven million years ago. Now Battle Creek is at the northern edge of that range for the magnificent bald cypress. There is a large complex arrangement of Cypress Swamps on Maryland’s Eastern Shore reaching all the way to Sussex County, Delaware, in the Pocomoke River drainage basin. But Battle Creek is the northernmost remnant on the Western Shore.