Louisiana waterthrush

Name notwithstanding, the Louisiana waterthrush is neither from nor endemic to Louisiana — and it is a warbler, not a thrush. It can be seen throughout the eastern U.S. in spring and summer. (Kenneth Cole Schneider/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A heavy mist dripped from a slate sky. The early morning landscape reluctantly brightened without revealing the source of illumination. A stream overflowed its banks, slowly flooding the forest floor.

I was feeling as somber as the landscape. A close and much-loved relative had just died. Every day seemed to yield another mass shooting. These immediate troubles occurred against a backdrop of a pandemic and climate change. So I wasn’t going to let drizzling heavens deter me from an early morning bird walk, my most effective mental health treatment.

A small, bobbing, brown and white bird appeared through the gray light. It was feeding at the dark water’s edge. A long, curving white eyebrow, wider at the back, was the only facial marking. The white throat quickly yielded to a heavily streaked breast. Its entire rear end methodically bobbed up and down.

We were looking at a Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla). As we inched closer, a second waterthrush appeared not far from the first.

Despite the state-specific name, Louisiana waterthrushes can be seen throughout the eastern United States in spring and summer. And the two we were watching had likely migrated from their winter homes in the Caribbean, Mexico or northern South America.

These were the first waterthrushes recorded in years at the Collington community in Mitchellville, MD, where we live. Imagine our delight when two more of the birds appeared in the flooded wetlands that feed Collington Lake.

Stormwater from surrounding neighborhoods, businesses, roadways and parking lots is directed away from those properties and funneled into the stream leading to the lake. Large stones inside stacked wire cages, called gabions, form a porous dam just before the stormwater enters the lake.

The gabions slow the racing water, dissipating its energy. Stormwater forms pools behind the gabions, allowing large amounts of sediment and pollutants to fall to the bottom. The cleaner water seeps through the rocks and enters the lake.

This complex “natural” pollution-filtering system supports a growing community of species. Bottom-dwelling worms, crayfish, hearty underwater grasses and such form the base of the lake’s food chain. Kingfishers, herons and osprey hunt for fish. Assorted geese and ducks visit.

The waterthrushes were feeding at the muddy edges of the pooled water. They were after insects, frogs, crayfish and more. Their nonspecialized diet helps them thrive in a constantly changing landscape. Since 1970, Partners in Flight has estimated a 34% increase in the species’ population.

The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 over the veto of President Nixon. It has resulted in widespread improvements in the health of U.S. waters, from lakes and rivers to wetlands and even estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay. In the early years, the EPA and state environmental agencies devoted their attention to sites and facilities discharging large amounts of pollution directly into U.S. waters.

Today, the permitting and enforcement focus is on nonpoint source pollution, which reaches waterways from broad swaths of land by seeping into groundwater or washing across the surface. In the last 25 years, that approach has begun to pay noticeable improvements. The innovative approach at Collington is a good example.

Organisms at the bottom of the food chain are extremely sensitive to pollution of all kinds. Because the Louisiana waterthrush relies on such a broad sampling of these creatures, it is considered an excellent indicator of stream health.

With an expanding population, some waterthrushes are likely looking for new breeding spots. When I saw the birds near our home, I immediately hoped that Collington was under consideration. Perhaps my delight at seeing the birds was running away with me.

Female and male Louisiana waterthrushes cooperatively select a nesting site, then jointly build the nest. Streamside recesses, including those provided by upturned tree roots, are favorite locations.

The female will lay up to six eggs. Only she has a “brood patch,” a featherless area on the belly that allows maximum heat exchange between the mom and incubating chicks. She sits on the eggs 10–14 days before the chicks hatch.

The nestlings grow rapidly, leaving the nest just 9–12 days after emerging from the shell. Both parents tend to the newly fledged young for up to a month. The species generally produces a single brood annually, from mid-May to mid-June.

The name of the Louisiana waterthrush is doubly deceiving: In addition to being neither from nor endemic to Louisiana, it’s also not a thrush. It is classified as a warbler. (So is the look-alike northern waterthrush, which winters farther south and breeds farther north.) Unlike other eastern warblers, the Louisiana waterthrush does not spend its time flitting among the branches of trees large and small. Instead, it is most often found along streams and associated wetlands.

Like other eastern warblers, the water thrush has a beautiful song and migrates annually between North America and the tropics.

This bird is hard to classify but easy to appreciate. Its modest brown and white feather designs are attractive without being flamboyant. Its song is rich and musical. Its constantly bobbing rear end is both amusing and intriguing.

And, most importantly, it has just appeared steps away from our apartment.

As I grow older, I better appreciate these tiny gifts that sometimes appear out of life’s fog. They brighten my life even in times of darkness. And that makes them easy to classify: a salve to the soul and a lift to the heart.

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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