Speaking of Nature: Louisiana waterthrush

  • This female Louisiana waterthrush stops to take a bath in the cool, clear water of a woodland pool. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

  • Incensed by the sudden appearance of another male (a song played on my phone) this male Louisiana waterthrush perched above me and declared his ownership of this territory with a loud, clear song. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

Published: 7/11/2021 4:00:12 PM

After so many years of writing this column, it is a rare day indeed when I get to share a new species with you. It is also an odd coincidence that I am telling a story that unfolded at the same time that I was watching the family of raccoons that I talked about last week. Sometimes a single day of observations can generate material for an entire month of columns, but I’m not complaining.

I was sitting in the Adirondack chair down in my back woods and looking across a dry streambed at a very old sugar maple with a family of raccoons living in its hollow trunk. The stream is “ephemeral,” which basically means that it is not full of water all throughout the year. In the spring, when the snow melts off you could kayak down this thing, but at other times in the summer you would be lucky to find anything more than a few shallow pools among the rocks. No fish, but plenty of frogs and aquatic insects.

So, while watching the raccoons I was also listening for birds and watching carefully for any stray movements that might betray the presence of something interesting. This, after all, is how I found the raccoons in the first place. I heard an ovenbird singing to the south and a red-eyed vireo singing to my east, but both were so far off that I didn’t feel like chasing them. Instead, I stayed put and hoped something interesting would come to me. I didn’t have to wait long.

To my left, coming up the streambed from the west, I saw a small brown bird that was skittering along the rocks in the stream. The bird bore a resemblance to an ovenbird, but there were a couple key differences that indicated a different species entirely. First, there was a white “eye stripe” that ran from the corner of the beak to the back of the head. Second, and most important, was the bird’s behavior. Walking along the stones in a stream and poking for possible food in the soggy moss and mud told me that this was a waterthrush.

I had my phone with me, so I selected one of my birding apps and played the song of a northern waterthrush. I was somewhat surprised when I failed to incite a response. The bird simply kept doing what it was doing despite the sudden appearance of one of its own kind. So, I tried playing the song of a Louisiana waterthrush and BAM! Out of nowhere a second bird, identical in appearance to the first, flew in and started countersinging like crazy. Apparently I had stumbled upon a mated pair and the male was not happy at all.

The Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla) is a member of the wood warbler family, which is why it had such a similar appearance as an ovenbird. Most warblers are birds of field and forest that spend their time nesting in trees and searching for insects among the vegetation of trees, shrubs and field plants. As with any large family, however, there is always an exception to the rule.

Both species of waterthrushes specialize in more aquatic habitats and look for food in the wettest places. Northern waterthrushes specialize in the still waters of bogs and swamps, whereas the Louisiana waterthrush specializes in the flowing waters of woodland streams. Both species look so similar that they are diabolically difficult to distinguish from one another, but the birds themselves are very much aware of who they are and once the males start singing there is no doubt of who you are looking at.

The pair of birds that I was watching had clearly set up shop along the stream in my back woods and it appeared as though they were actively nesting. As I tried to draw the male closer for a photo the female, still unfazed by the entire situation, came closer and closer to me as she explored the stream. At one point she was about 2 feet away from me and she decided to take a bath in a pool of clear water among the rocks. Once she was done she flew up to a branch and preened her feathers. Then she flew right in front of me and headed a little further up the stream where she pulled a large worm out of a patch of wet moss. Then (and this was big!) she flew up the streambed with the worm rather than simply eating it. That meant chicks!

The Louisiana waterthrush is atypical of most other warblers in that it nests on the ground. Specifically, the nest is located in a hole in a stream bank, or in the roots of a tree where the stream has undercut the bank. The nest itself is still a cup of dry vegetation (dry grasses, etc.) that lines a larger mass of dead, wet leaves. Both sexes build the nest, but the female is a bit more active in this endeavor. The entire nest will be well hidden by overhanging roots and vegetation and will eventually contain four to six speckled eggs.

I spent some time searching for the nest, but was unable to locate it in the time that I had allocated. The chicks in this nest had spent 12-14 days growing in their eggs and would spend a total of another 12-14 days as nestlings before eventually leaving the nest and following their parents around to learn what it means to be a waterthrush. They will need to study fast because by September they will already be on their way to either Central America or the Caribbean — a long journey for a bird only a few months old.

So that, finally, takes care of the final story generated by a single morning of observations made back in June. Now that the “deep” summer is here I will have to change gears and see if I can’t find something new to talk about. Stay tuned.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 21 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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