Three Things You Probably Didn’t Know About: Northern Waterthrush

Early on a muggy morning in late summer, you head out to your favourite birding hotspot in the hopes of spotting some early migrants. Inside the leafy green canopy of the forest, it’s surprisingly cool and pleasant. Your shoes crunch softly on the crushed gravel of the trail as you come up to a small stream, stagnant at this time of year from the lack of rain. You stop at the stream and carefully scan the shore, alert for any movement.

In the distance, you notice a small shape working its way up the creek towards you. The tiny bird is wading through the shallow water, its rear end in constant motion, bobbing up and down with every step. It is clearly on a mission. With your binoculars, you watch the bird use its beak to energetically flip over leaf after leaf in the soggy leaf litter. With eagle eyes, the bird spots a helpless white grub and gobbles it up in an instant, before moving on in search of the next tasty morsel. The sleek, olive-brown wings and back of the bird, combined with the cream coloured belly with brown streaks, help the bird blend in well to the dark leaf litter.

This is a Northern Waterthrush, a migratory songbird in the warbler family that is quite eager to leave the forested wetlands of North America for its winter home in the flooded mangrove forests of the tropics. Read on to learn three things you probably didn’t know about these energetic early migrants.

Northern Waterthrush. Photo: Mark Peck

1.) They have a surprising diet

Northern Waterthrushes mostly eat larval and adult insects and spiders, but they also eat snails, small clams, crabs, minnows, and even salamanders!

2.) They hide their nests in clever places

Northern Waterthrushes nest on the ground, and their favourite place to build their nest is within the dark hiding spots created in the tangles of roots from fallen or standing trees. They also nest in clumps of dense vegetation or in cavities in stream banks.

Northern Waterthrush. Photo: Mark Peck

3.) Their parents ‘divorce’

When the babies are old enough to leave the nest, mom and dad split up. Each parent will take 1-2 young with them to feed and care for until they become independent.

Do you want to help migratory songbirds like the Northern Waterthrush have a safe migration? Learn how here.