Feathered Friends: Visits from Northern Waterthrush, other warblers close out September

8:57 am | October 1, 2012

Before leaving for work on the morning of Thursday, Sept. 20, I found a Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and an American Redstart in the wild cherry trees. The morning chill seemed to motivate all the birds to a level of high activity, and they were flying in all directions from tree to tree.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Northern Waterthrush migrates through Northeast Tennessee each spring and fall. This large warbler nests in the northern United States, including Alaska, as well as across Canada.

When I got home from work that day, temperatures had risen to a more comfortable level, and I saw another batch of warblers this evening. The composition of the mixed flocks had changed, for the most part, and included several Magnolia Warbler, Tennessee Warbler and a Black-throated Green Warbler, which represented a new sighting for this fall.

Besides warblers, an Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Wood-Pewee stayed busy making aerial sallies for insect prey they caught on the wing.

A lucky Northern Cardinal fledgling received quite a mouthful when the young bird’s mother arrived with a plump caterpillar. She transferred the caterpillar to the young bird, which went to some comical effort to swallow the large caterpillar. Hungry young American Goldfinches also hassled their parents into providing them with tidbits of food.

Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches and Song Sparrows made frequent visits to the sunflower feeders.

Last but not least, Gray Catbirds, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Carolina Wrens rounded out the evening’s sightings.

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I found a new fall warbler Friday, Sept. 21, before leaving the house for work. I spotted a Bay-breasted Warbler in the grape vines trailing into the lower branches of the wild cherry tree at the creek. If I’ve kept accurate count, that’s 17 warbler species so far this fall.

Other warblers spotted that same morning included Tennessee, Magnolia and a singing male Northern Parula in the weeping willow at the fish pond.

When I returned home from work that evening, I found more warblers in the yard, including an immature Blackburnian Warbler, which was a new sighting for the fall migration season. The sighting of the Blackburnian pushed my fall total to 18 species.

I spotted a few other warblers, as well, including Tennessee Warbler, Cape May Warbler and Magnolia Warbler. I also observed two Eastern Phoebes and an Eastern Wood- Pewee.

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On the morning of Sunday, Sept. 23, I stepped outside to fill up the sunflower feeders. As I was adding a supply of seed to each feeder, I heard an odd chip note and soon located a Northern Waterthrush in the swampy area near the old springhouse. The bird was so close that I didn’t even need binoculars for a good look. Of course, waterthrushes aren’t interested in sunflower seed. This large warbler feeds on aquatic and terrestrial insects, crustaceans and other invertebrates. They often find their food by turning over leaves and snapping up any scurrying creatures they spot.

The only other bird observation was the frenzied activity this morning of numerous Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. I’m not sure they sipped much sugar water as they seemed more interested in chasing each other.

My usual evening of lawn chair birding on Sunday, Sept. 23, required the donning of a light jacket. This was the first time I had felt the fall chill this migration season. Despite the cooler temperatures, I did manage to spot a Black-throated Green Warbler foraging rather low in the understory of vegetation near the creek. While watching a Tennessee Warbler through binoculars, the bird took a notion to fly right over my head while traveling from one shrub to another. It was quite an experience to watch the onrushing bird coming closer in the binoculars only to veer up and avoid collision at the last second.

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Migrants were a little scarce Monday, Sept. 24. I saw the Northern Waterthrush again that morning, and I saw a couple of Tennessee Warblers this evening. Otherwise, the only migrants in view were the still very active Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

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Before leaving for work the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 25, I had time to find one Tennessee Warbler, 3 Bay-breasted Warblers, a Gray Catbird and several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

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Before leaving for work the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 26, I again spotted the Northern Waterthrush. The bird was walking along the top of a rock wall near an old utility shed at the house. The tall mimosa tree next to the building has also become an attractive lure for warblers visiting the yard.

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If there was one bird making recurring appearances last week, that had to be the lingering Northern Waterthrush. This individual had apparently claimed as its own territory the area between the creek and the remains of the old rock spring house. The bird’s preference for this swampy area is not too much of a surprise. The Northern Waterthrush prefers wet habitats, and the thick vegetation growing at the margins of the yard provide some cover when this rather shy bird feels the need to retreat.

While shy, they are also curious. Any disturbance in the vicinity of one of these birds is almost bound to produce a loud call note that is often described as a hard “chink” sound. While trying to stay under cover, the bird will also move closer to attempt to determine the source of the intrusion.

If you’re lucky enough to come into contact with this rather large warbler, don’t make any sudden movements. If you remain very still, this bird can be lured quite close, driven on by its sense of curiosity. An observer will also note that this warbler walks, not hops, over the ground and along branches. As they move, they also seem to teeter because of their habit of bobbing their tails as they walk.

Northern Waterthrushes spend the nesting season in cool, dark, forested wetlands, frequently along the edges of ponds or lakes. This bird almost always builds its nest close to standing water. During migration, the Northern Waterthrush will visit back yards and city parks, often away from water, but they are most likely to be found in thick cover along streams or ponds.

In their winter range, which extends from Florida to Central America and the West Indies, as well as Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, Northern Waterthrushes often reside in mangrove swamps.

The Northern Waterthrush is only a migrant in Northeast Tennessee, but its relative, the Louisiana Waterthrush, nests along mountain streams and creeks in the region. The Louisiana Waterthrush arrives as early as March and usually departs in late summer, well before most warblers have even started to think about fall migration.

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I can’t believe September’s already at an end. I look forward to fall migration all summer, and then it seems to flash past in the blink of an eye. One trend that you may have noticed in my fall birding is that I try to bird around the house, usually whenever I have the free time. I have a few minutes every morning before work. In the evening, I like to sit in the lawn chairs, often with my mother, as we scan for any movement or flash of color in the trees along the creek.

Some good birds, including warblers, can still be found in October. For that reason, members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society will conduct free bird walks every Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.

The public is welcome to come out any Saturday morning in October for a leisurely stroll along the Watauga River in search of migrating birds. The annual October Saturday bird walks will return for four Saturdays in October. Dates for these walks in 2012 are Oct. 6, 13, 20 and 27.

Members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of TOS will lead the walks, which start at 8 a.m. from the parking lot at the Visitors Center at the park. Participants will scan the treetops with binoculars for migrants — tanagers, vireos, warblers and grosbeaks. They will also search for waterfowl, herons and kingfishers along the Watauga River and look for sparrows in the fields on the grounds of the park.

Through the years, these walks have produced some interesting observations of birds. The variety of warblers flitting through the treetops in early October are replaced by sparrows in the brushy fields later in the month. Over the years some of the better birds on the count have included Orange-crowned Warbler, Hooded Warbler, American Redstart, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Purple Finch, Northern Raven, Great Blue Heron, Black-throated Blue Warbler and Northern Waterthrush.

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To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, call me at 297-9077 or email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I am on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ ahoodedwarbler.

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