Skip to Content

Northern Waterthrush

As the name hints, these thrushes can usually be found next to rivers and swampy grounds.

Despite its name, the Northern Waterthrush is a large warbler and not a thrush. A very early fall migrant, the Northern Waterthrush may depart portions of its breeding range as early as mid-July. It migrates nocturnally in small groups, stopping to feed along the way.

Northern Waterthrushes maintain territories on their wintering grounds as well as their breeding grounds. Although very similar in appearance, Louisiana Waterthrushes are not chased away, because the foraging habits and behavior of the two species are different enough that they don’t directly compete with one another.


Northern Waterthrush and its reflection. A little smaller bird than the jet that can be heard flying over head.


Description of the Northern Waterthrush


The Northern Waterthrush has brownish upperparts, pale yellow underparts with heavy black streaking, and a long, yellowish supercilium that usually narrows behind the eye.   Length: 6 in.  Wingspan: 10 in.

Northern Waterthrush

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.


Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance



Fall immatures are similar to adults.


Northern Waterthrushes inhabit wet, coniferous forests, but occur in a variety of wet habitats in migration, including streamsides and lakeshores.

Northern Waterthrush

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.


Northern Waterthrushes eat insects.


Northern Waterthrushes forage on the ground, in shallow water, and on partly submerged logs, seeking both aquatic and terrestrial insects. They frequently bob their rear end up and down.


Northern Waterthrushes breed from Alaska across Canada to the Atlantic, including parts of the northwestern and northeastern U.S. In migration, they occur in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. They winter from Mexico south to South America. The population appears to be stable.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Northern Waterthrush.


Fun Facts

Northern Waterthrushes migrate later in the spring than Louisiana Waterthrushes.

Northern Waterthrushes are typically found in areas with slower moving water than Louisiana Waterthrushes.

Even where their ranges overlap, the Northern Waterthrush and Louisiana Waterthrush do not have aggressive territorial interactions.


The song is a series of emphatic notes both descending and accelerating.  A buzzy flight call is also given.


Similar Species

  • Louisiana Waterthrush
    Louisiana Waterthrushes have whiter underparts and a whiter supercilium that widens behind the eye. 


The Northern Waterthrush’s nest is a cup of leaves, moss, pine needles, and twigs and is lined with finer materials. It is placed on a mossy stump or within the roots of an upturned tree.

Number: Usually lay 4-5 eggs.
Color: Whitish with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12-13 days and fledge at about 10 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Northern Waterthrush

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Northern Waterthrush – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



This brilliant songster, the northern waterthrush, is known to most of us in the United States as a spring and fall migrant. It often appears in our yards or gardens walking gracefully about on the lawn or under the shrubbery, but we are much more likely to find it in the thickets along the edges of the swamps or ponds, on the banks of streams, or walking daintily over the muddy shores of some shaded woodland pool. At such times it seems rather familiar and is easily approached, but on its more northern breeding grounds it is more secretive and must be looked for in the more secluded nooks in cool bogs, along the mountain streams, or about the shores of northern lakes in the Canadian Zone. There its loud and charming song will reveal its presence and tempt the listener to invade its hidden haunts.

The breeding range of the northern waterthrush includes northern New England and much of eastern Canada, but extends southward in the mountains to Pennsylvania and Virginia. It breeds locally and rarely in southern New England and New York. I once found it breeding in Rhode Island in an extensive maple swamp where cool, clear water was flowing slowly among the stumps and upturned roots of fallen trees; there, within a radius of 100 yards, we found nests of this and the Louisiana waterthrush and the winter wren, a curious mingling of northern and southern species; the musical voices of these three famous singers produced a concert that can better be imagined than described.

Todd (1940) says that at higher altitudes in western Pennsylvania, it “is sometimes found along swift mountain streams, but as a general rule it favors isolated pools of standing water in the woods: the kind of habitat that does not attract the other species at all. Rhododendron swamps are favorite haunts.” Prof. Maurice Brooks (1940) says that, in the central Allegheny Mountain region, “this species, found along some of the mountain streams and in swamps at high altitudes, reaches its known southern breeding limits at Cranberry Glades. * * * It is confined to the Canadian and upper Alleghenian zones, nesting as low as 2,500 feet at Cranesville swamp in West Virginia and Maryland. * * * These warblers show a preference for streams that are lined with spruce, hemlock, or rhododendron, or a combination of these, but they may occasionally be found in northern hardwood forest.”

Spring: From its wide winter range in the West Indies and in northern South America this species apparently migrates northward over two widely separated routes, both east and west of the Gulf of Mexico, but. as most of the migration records do not distinguish between the two races and are seldom based on collected specimens, it is impossible to define the routes followed by the two subspecies. It is reasonably certain, however, that the birds that winter in the West Indies and migrate northward along the Atlantic Coast States are the eastern form, although it is possible that the birds of this race that winter in British Guiana may migrate through the Antilles to Florida and northward. We would naturally expect to find that most of the birds that take the western route through Central America, Mexico, and Texas, are of the western race, ‘iwta6ilis; but typical nove~oracens’~ has been taken on migration along the coast of Mexico. I have seen waterthrushes migrating along the coast of Texas, but I have taken no specimens. Birds that take the western route apparently migrate northward through the Mississippi Valley.

Nesting: My friend Harry S. Hathaway, who had reported (1906) the nesting of the northern waterthrush in Rhode Island, showed me in 1908 what is probably the most southeastern locality in New England where this species breeds, a corner of Kingston swamp, the main portion of which was originally a cedar swamp. Most of the cedar had been cut off and was then replaced by a heavy forest of maples, large swamp white oaks, red oaks, beeches, gray and yellow birches, a few lone pines, fine holly trees, and dense patches of rhododendron. It was a cool and shady retreat, the dense foliage of the large trees shut out the sunlight, and the atmosphere was cooled by a steady flow of clear, cold spring water, in some places nearly knee deep. It was a locality well suited for such northern birds as the winter wren and this waterthrush. The nest of the latter was neatly hidden in a little cavity in a moss-covered stump prettily overgrown with ferns, the hanging dead fronds of which partially concealed the nest; it was placed only 14 inches above the water of a small pool at the base of the stump. The nest, an attractive structure, was made mainly of sphagnum moss and skeletonized leaves and was lined with green sphagnum and the red fruiting stalks of mosses. It held four fresh eggs on May 24.

I found two nests of the northern waterthrush on the heavily wooded shores of Asquam Lake, N. H., in 1926. The first nest was under an overhanging bank at the very edge of the rocky shore of the lake; it was sunken into the soil of the bank in a sheltered hollow, and contained four fresh eggs on June 16. The nest was largely made of green mosses, mixed with a few twigs, many pine needles, a few fine strips of inner bark, and some fine, black rootlets; it was lined with very fine grasses and a little cow hair. The other nest was in a similar location, but was far in under the roots of a large dead stub overhangin the bank on the shore of the lake; it was not quite finished on June 18.

F. H. Kennard mentions in his notes a nest found near Lancaster, N. H., on June 14, 1910, that was placed in the moss on the side of a moss-covered stump in a dark, swampy place. The nest was in plain sight beneath the arch formed by two roots of the stump. T. E. McMullen has sent me the data for eight nests found in the Pocono Mounhiins of Pennsylvania, all found in the upturned roots of fallen trees in swamps or along streams.

Eggs: The northern waterthrush lays either 4 or 5 eggs to a set apparently about evenly divided, occasionally only 3 and rarely 6. These are ovate to short ovate and have little or no gloss. The ground color is creamy white or bully white, or rarely “pale, ochraceous-buff. The eggs are speckled, spotted, and blotched with “auburn~” “argus brown,” “Brussels brown,” or “cinnamon-brown,” with underlying spots of “light purplish gray” or “fuscous.” They may be finely and sparsely speckled, or boldly blotched, but in general are more heavily marked than those of the ovenbird. They may also be decorated with small scrawls or cloudings of “wood brown.” Occasionally this clouding almost entirely obscures the ground color. All types of markings are concentrated at the large end. In looking over a large series of these eggs, the gray spots seem rather less pronounced than on the eggs of the Lousiana waterthrush. The measurements of 50 eggs average 19.1 by 14.6 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measures 20.8 by 15.0, 19.3 by 16.0, and 17.8 by 13.7 millimeters (Harris).

Young: Nothing seems to be known about the incubation, or about the care and development of the young.

Plumages: Dr. Dwight (1900) calls the natal down deep olivebrown, and describes the juvenal plumage of the northern waterthrush as “above, deep olive-brown with cinnamon edgings. Wings and tail darker, the coverts tipped with pale cinnamon. Below, primroseyellow heavily streaked on the chin and less heavily on the throat, breast and sides with deep olive or clove-brown. Indistinct superciliary line and orbital ring buff; transocular stripe dusky.”

The first winter plumage is acquired by a partial postjuvenal molt in July, which involves the contour plumage and the wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings or the tail. Young and old are now practically indistinguishable. The sexes are alike in all plumages. Dr. Dwight describes this plumage as “above, yellowish olive-brown including wing coverts, without edgings. Below, straw-yellow, palest on the crissum, the flanks washed with olive-brown, spotted on the chin and streaked, except on the mid-abdomen and crissum, with black veiled by overlapping whitish edgings. Superciliary stripe and orbital ring pale ochraceous-buf; transocular streak deep olive-brown; auriculars dusky.

“First nuptial plumage acquired by marked wear, birds becoming browner above and paler below, the veiling lost. It is possible there is a very limited growth of new feathers about the head.” Year-old birds can usually be recognized by the paler and somewhat worn wings and tails.

Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in July. The adult winter plumage is like that of the first winter, but the streakings below are rather broader and the wings and tail are darker. Subsequent spring plumages are produced by wear, as in the young bird.

Food: Forbush (1929) writes: “The food of the Water-Thrush consists more or less of aquatic insects, beetles and their larvae, and moths. It picks up dead and soggy leaves from crevices in the rocks and throws them aside, thus uncovering lurking creatures on which it feeds. According to Dr. Elliott Coues tiny molluscs and crustaceans are eaten, and Arthur T. Wayne took one that had eaten a few small minnows. Dr. B. H. Warren names small worms as one consituent of its food, and it also eats quantities of mosquitoes.”

Dr. Wetmore (1916) reports on the contents of four stomachs of this species, including both races, collected in Puerto Rico, as follows:

“Fly pupae and a few adults were present in three stomachs and amount to 43 per cent of the total. Ants (24 per cent), of which one bird had eaten 40, were found in three stomachs. Water scavenger beetles were found in two instances and a hister beetle (Hister sp.) once. In one stomach were five water boatmen (Plea sp.) and another aquatic bug, and two contained the remains of small crabs (in one case of Uca). In single stomachs were found the jaw of an orthopteran, a lantern fly, and a bone from the head of a tiny fish.”

Stuart T. Danforth (1925) reports on the 95 percent of animal food in four stomachs, also from Puerto Rico, “3 damselflies, 10 per cent; 20 large fleabeetles (Haltica jamaicensis), 19 percent; 2 fleabeetles (Systena lJa.sali8), 1.3 per cent; Carabid beetles (Stenows sp.), 26.2 per cent; pupa of a Sesban weevil (Tyloderma sp.), 1.2 per cent; other Colepterous fragments, 5 per cent; 2 Noctuid caterpillars, 5 per cent; 1 Syrphid fly ( Volucella ole8a) , 2 percent; 3 caseworms (Tincola uteyella), 6.1 per cent; 1 slug, 2.5 per cent.” He also reported a few seeds.

Behavior: Forbush (1929) describes the behavior of the waterthrush, much better than I can, in the following words: “Though not really a thrush, the Water-Thrush is well named. It is a large wood warbler disguised as a thrush and exhibiting an extreme fondness for water.

“Like the Oven-bird it walks, and seems fond of walking on a log, but prefers to pass down a slanting log, the lower end of which enters the water. It is unlike the Oven-bird, however, in its almost continuous teetering of the body and wagging of the tail, which it seems to move up and down almost as unconsciously and regularly as it draws the breath of life; this action is accompanied by a springy motion of the legs.”

Dr. Cones (1878) aptly refers to the timidity and retiring habits of the waterthrush during the nesting season and adds:

But this is Only when he feels the cares and full responsibilities of home and family. Later in the season, when these things are off his mind, he is quite another fellow, who will meet you more than half-way should you chance to find him then, with a wondering, perhaps, yet with a confident and quite familiar, air of easy unconcern. Anywhere by the water’s edge: in the d~br~s of the widestretched river-bottom, in the flowery tangle of the brook, around the margins of the little pools that dot the surface where tall oaks and hickories make pleasant shade: there rambles the Water-Thrush. Watch him now, and see how prettily he walks, rustling among the fallen leaves where he threads his way like a mouse, or wading even up to his knees in the shallow miniature lakes, like a Sandpiper by the sea-shore, all Intent in quest of the aquatic insects, worms, and tiny molluscs and crustaceans that form his varied food. But as he rambles on in this gliding course, the mincing steps are constantly arrested, and the dainty stroller poises In a curious way to see-saw on his legs, quite like a Titlark or a Spotted Sandpiper.

We always think of the waterthrush as living on or near the ground and in the immediate vicinity of water, in such places as those mentioned, but there are exceptions to the rule, especially during migrations. Wendell Taber tells me that he heard two of them singing, and saw one of them “sitting near the top of a birch tree which rose out of the swamp and which towered above all other trees about except balsams.” He estimated that the bird was about 35 feet above the ground. On another occasion, he saw one in a hemlock grove, a long distance from any water. The bird was very tame, and was “walking around, bobbing, on hemlock limbs.”

Mr. Brewster (1938) gives the following account of the behavior of a bird about a nest he was photographing:

The female was very nervous and fussy, chirping and calling up her mate the first thing. She would not go on the nest when the camera was near it but kept running rapidly about around the bank and the camera, examining the latter as well as the bulb of my rubber tube which lay several yards off with evident distrust. When started from the nest she would regularly run six or eight yards, crouching close to the ground and moving with a slow gliding motion, spreading her tall and half spreading and quivering her wings, sometimes turning back and gliding past me or just under the nest, making no sound nor tilting while behaving thus, but presently flying up to some branch or root to tilt and chirp with her mate.

Again, he writes: “As I was sitting in my canoe this afternoon in a sheltered cove one appeared on the shore within three yards of me. By degrees it approached even nearer running about over some driftwood, now and then pausing to look at me intently with its large dark eyes. Even when I moved abruptly it showed no fear of me.”

Voice: Aretas A. Saunders (MS.) describes the song as follows: “The song of the northern waterthrush is a series of rather short, staccato notes, either all equal in time or accelerating toward the end. The number of notes in my 30 records varies from 6 to 15 and averages about 10. The song is loud, and the notes are of sweet, musical quality. They contain marked consonant sounds, with explosive, and liquid, single notes sounding like tleep, tlip, or tlap.

“The pitch of the song varies from C”‘ to D””, one tone more than an octave. Single songs have a range of from one to three and a half tones, the majority, 16 records, ranging two and a half tones. The general trend of change in pitch, in all songs, is downward. In all but 4 of my records the last note is the lowest in pitch. In all but 6 the first note is on the highest pitch of the song. In 10 of the records, however, the downward trend of the pitch is broken by a single high note, sometimes as high as the first note, near the end of the song, and most frequently the next to the last note.

“Songs vary from 1~ to 2% seconds. In a majority of the songs the first notes are slow, and the remaining notes become gradually more rapid, but 13 of my records show no change in time, the notes all being of equal length.

“This song may be heard commonly from migrating birds, and, on the breeding grounds, continues until about the middle of July. I have little data on the summer song, however, and cannot give average dates for the time of cessation.”

Francis H. Allen tells me that he has recorded the song as “wheet wheet chip chip chip wheedleyou, and as wheet wheet chip chip chip chip chip’-ii, the final ~ rather faint. A call or alarm note is a sharp, metallic or perhaps ‘stony’ chip, thinner than that of the ovenbird, but carrying well.” In 1912, in Newfoundland, I recorded the song as chip chip chip chip chitter chittere’w.

Gerald Thayer wrote to Dr. Chapman (1907):

At Its best the song of this species is not quite so fine, perhaps, as that of iut’u~ motaeflla: lt Is very different, and has a rare grace and vigor of ita own. Like the Oven-bird the Northern Water-Thrush makes up for a great general regularity of singIng by an occasional wide lapse into variation. Its flight-song, a performance relatively far less common than the Oven-bird’s (I), seems to be nearly changeless. It Is like the common perch song, but quicker and longer, and “framed” In a hurried jumble of half-call-half-song notes ;: the whole delivered as the bird dashes horizontally through or barely above the woods. Most notable among the few Important variations of Its perch-song I have heard was a long, liquid strain seemingly made up of at least three united repetitions of the regular utterances, going unusually fast, In a thinner tone, and Intersprinkled with sharp notes of “chippering,” unlike the common call-notes. The typical perch-song Itself Is hard to describe in words. A ringing, bubbling warble, swift and emphatic, made up of two parts, barely divided, the second lower-toned and diminuendo.

Dr. Sutton (1928) recognizes the song as expressed by the human words, “flurry, hurry, hurry, pretty, pretty, pretty.”

Albert R. Brand (1938) gives for the song of this species a range of from 2,000 to 3,850 vibrations per second, with an approximate mean of 2,925, the lowest frequency, or the lowest pitch, that he recorded in any of the other wood warblers, except the yellow-breasted chat.

Field marks: The bird with which the northern waterthrush is most likely to be confused is its congener, the Louisiana waterthrush; the former has a huffy line over the eye and sulphur-yellow under parts, streaked with black almost up to the chin; the latter has a more conspicuous pure white stripe over the eye, a much whiter throat, and white underparts, streaked less conspicuously with olivebrown; the latter also has a larger bill. The ovenbird has no stripe over the eye.

Enemies: Dr. Friedmann (1929) says that the waterthrush is “rarely victimized” by the cowbird; probably the latter has difficulty in finding its nest, as only four observers have reported cases of victimization.

Harold S. Peters (1936) reports one louse, MenAcanthus sp., and two bird-flies, O~.nithoioa confluenta Say and Or’nithomyia anchineuria Speiser, as external parasites on the northern waterthrush.Fall: The northern waterthrush starts on its fall migration before the end of July and passes through the Atlantic Coast States mainly in August; it has been recorded in Costa Rica as early as August 12, and generally reaches its winter home in September. P. H. Gosse (1847) records its arrival in Jamaica as early as August 5.

Watertlirushes are sometimes very abundant on the fall migrations and may be found almost anywhere, even about buildings. Taverner and Swales (1908) write of the migration at Point Pelee, Ontario: “During the height of their abundance they were the most conspicuous bird on the Point, and were seen in all kinds of places, and at all times. They were in the low, damp spots in the woods, in the high walnut timber, and in the red cedar thickets. They were common everywhere. We found them in the last outlying brush pile near the end of the final sand spit, and in patches of weeds and cotton woods along the eastern sand dune. * * * It was no uncommon sight to Ihave four or five in the same line of vision, besides others that could be heard and not seen.”

Winter: A few waterthrushes may spend the winter in Florida, but most of them pass on to the Bahamas and the West Indies, or to Central America and northern South America. Savile G. Reid (1884) lists this species as “one of the commonest but most interesting of autumnal visitors” in Bermuda. “It appears regularly early in October and a few remain all winter~” It appears to be a regular winter resident in the Bahamas. Dr. Wetmore (1916) records it as “a fairly common winter visitant in the coastal region of Puerto Rico. * * * These water-thrushes occur only in the mangroves of the coastal region, where they are found about bays and lagoons feeding on the ground, and though their sharp call notes are heard repeatedly, the birds themselves are usually hidden. * * * In April they were singing as clearly as in the North.” Dr. Barhour (1923) says that, in Cuba, it is “a not uncommon winter visitor. Found about lakes, ditches and river banks, and in the mangroves along the seashore.”

In El Salvador, Dickey and van Rossem (1938) record it as “fairly common in fall, winter, and spring throughout the lowlands and foothills. Dates of arrival and departure are August 31 and April 29. * * * While in winter quarters water-thrushes seem always to be solitary. They were usually to be observed walking daintily about in wet or boggy places, such as swamp holes in the forest or at the water’s edge along streams and ponds.”

Dr. Skutch contributes the following notes: “All three races of waterthrush occur as migrants in Central America. Griscom regards the western race as the more abundant; while Carriker considered typical noveboraeensis as the prevalent race in Costa Rica.

“Throughout Central America, the northern waterthrush (including its western representatives, Grinnell’s and McCabe’s water thrushes),is seen far more often than the Louisiana waterthrush. It occurs as an abundant spring and fall transient, and as a not very abundant winter resident. As a bird of passage, it is found in both spring and fall on both sides of the Cordillera, while in the highlands I have met it as high as 10,600 feet. As a winter resident, it is most abundant in the Caribbean lowlands, but has been recorded in midwinter in the Pacific lowlands. It arrives in Central America in August or September, and remains until April or May, late stragglers sometimes delaying until May 30.

“Like its relatives, the Louisiana waterthrush and the ovenbird, the northern waterthrush leads a solitary existence in its winter home. Most often seen foraging along the shores of streams and lagoons, but it is by no means confined to the immediate vicinity of water, for in the Central American lowlands it will occasionally be found walking sedately through a banana plantation or an orchard where the ground is moist and not too encumbered with weeds, or on the bare ground about houses where all is quiet, or even over shady lawns, flicking fallen leaves aside with its bill. But although it will at times venture so close to the habitations of man, it is not for that reason at ease in his presence, and is always ready to fly when the inmates of the dwelling show themselves. On the Island of Jamaica, in December, 1930, I found northern waterthrushes abundant in the swamps of black mangrove (Avicennia nitida) along the south coast., where the naked muddy ground was covered with shallow water. Doubtless they haunt similar situations in Central America.

“Early dates of fall arrival in Central America are: Guatemala: Sierra Cuchumatanes, 10,600 feet, September 15, 1934. Honduras: Tela, October 5, 1930. Costa Rica: San Jos6 (Cherrie), September 14; Escazii (Carriker), August 13, 1902; Basin of El General, October 18, 1936.

“Late dates of spring departure from Central America are: Panama: Barro Colorado Island, Canal Zone, April 12, 1935. Costa Rica: El Pozo de T6rraba (Underwood), April 8, 1906; Basin of El General, April 23, 1936, April 27, 1939, April 17, 1940, and April 11, 1942; San Jos6 (Cherrie), May 21 and May 30. Honduras: Tela, May 9, 1930. Guatemala: Sierra de Tecp~n, 8,500 feet, April 27, 1933; Motagua Valley, near Los Amates, May 18, 1932; Finca Sepacuit6 (Griscom), May 22.”

Range: North America, the West Indies, and northern South America.

Breeding range: The waterthrush breeds north to north-central Alaska (valleys of the Kobuk and Yukon Rivers); northern Yukon (La Pierre House); northwestern and central southern Mackenzie (Akiavik, Fort McPherson, Fort Good Hope, Fort Norman, Fort Simpson, Fort Rae, Fort Resolution, and Hill Island Lake); northeastern Saskatchewan (Cochrane River) ; northern Manitoba (north end of Lake DuBrochet, Churchill, and York Factory); northern Ontario (Seven House, mouth of the Attawapiskat River, and Moose Factory); north-central Quebec (Fort George, inland from Richmond Gulf, Lake Albanel, and probably Fort Chimo); Labrador (Davis Inlet, Cartwright, St. Peter’s Bay and probably Grand Falls); and Newfoundland (Hare Bay, Canada Bay, Fogo Island, Gander, and St. John’s). East to Newfoundland (St. John’s); Nova Scotia (Bridgetown, Halifax, and probably Sable Island); central Massachusetts (Lenox, Huntington, Amherst, Ware, Boston, rarely Springfield, and Taunton) ; rarely in Rhode Island (Washington County and Kingston); New York (Lime Lake, Naples, Potter, Canandaigua, and Oswego); northwestern New Jersey (High Point, Newfoundland Lake, and Sparta); Pennsylvania (Eagle Rock, Warren, Hollidaysburg, Williamsport, and the Pocono Mountains); West Virginia (Bluefields, Pendleton County, and Shepherd Grade); western Virginia (Salem); and western North Carolina (Buncombe County). South to North Carolina (Buncombe County); Ohio (Cleveland, Austinburg, Trumbull County, and Pymatuning Swamp); northern Michigan (Brown Lake, Huron Mountains, Blaney Park, and Less Chenneaux Island); rarely Wisconsin (Dunn County, Unity, and Shiocton); northeastern Minnesota (Gull Lake, Otter Lake, and Duluth); central North Dakota (Turtle Mountains); western Montana (Fortine, Bitterroot Valley, Florence, Gallatin County, and Great Falls) ; northern Idaho (Coeur d’Alene and St. Manes) ; central Saskatchewan (Buffalo River, Carlton House, and Cumberland House); southern Alberta (Grand Prairie, Jasper Park, and Yenmillion Lakes); and British Columbia (Okanagan Landing). West to British Columbia (Okanagan Landing, Lac la Hache, Frazer Lake, Glenora, Doch-da-on Creek, and Fort Nelson); and Alaska (Goodnews Bay, Seldovia, Tustamena Lake, Tanana Crossing, and Kobuk River Valley).

Winter range: The waterthrush winters north to southern Baja California (Magdalena Bay, La Paz, San Pedro, and San Jos6 del Cabo); southern Mexico (Acapulco, Tlalpan, Guerrero, Jalapa, San Andres, Tuxtla, and Chinchorro Bank) ; Yucatan Peninsula (Mujeres Island) ; Cuba (Habana and Cienfuegos) ; the Bahamas (New Providence, San Salvador, and Great Inagua); Bermuda; Haiti (Tortue Island, Caracol, and Etang de Miragoane); Dominican Republic (Monte Cristi and San Juan); and Puerto Rico (Mona Island, Mameyes, and Culebra Island). East to Puerto Rico (Culebra Island) ; throughout the Lesser Antilles (Virgin Islands, Antuilla, Barbuda, Antigua, Guadeloupe, San Lucia, the Grenadines, Tobago, and Trinidad); and French Guiana (Cayenne). South to French Guiana (Cayenne); British Guiana; and Ecuador (Esmeraldas). West to Ecuador (Esmeraldas); through Central America; Mexico (Tulancingo and Metlaltoyuca); to southern Baja California (Magdalena Bay).

Casual records include specimens taken or observed in Greenland, Texas, Michigan, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

The species as outlined is divided into three subspecies or geographic races. The northern waterthrush (S. n. noveborcenai8) breeds in the eastern part of the range from Newfoundland to North Carolina; Grinnell’s waterthrush (S. n. notal4lis) takes up the greater part of the range from Alaska to southwestern Labrador and south through north-central Quebec, northern Michigan, northeastern Ohio, and west; while McCabe’s waterthrush (S. n. limnaeu8) breeds in central British Columbia.

Migration: L ate dates of spring departure are: Venezuela: Rancho Grande near Maracay, Aragua, April 22. Colombia: Santa Marta region, April 30. Panam~,: San Miguel Island, April 29. Costa Rica: San Jos6, May 21. Nicaragua: southeastern, May 5. Honduras: near Tela, May 9. Guatemala: Uaxact6n, May 7. Vera Cruz: Presidio, May 21. Baja California: Puerto Balandra, May 18. Virgin Islands: St. Croix, May 5. Puerto Rico: Fortuna, May 10. Haiti: fle ~ Vache, May 6. Cuba: Habana, May 20.. The Bahamas: Cay Lobos Light, May 17.

Early dates of spring arrival are: The Bahamas: Cay Lobos Light, April 11. Florida: Miami, March 15; Pensacola, March 16. Alabama: Sylacauga, April 16. Georgia: Macon, March 15. South Carolina: Mount Pleasant, March 24. North Carolina: Raleigh, April 4 (average of 15 years, April 27). Virginia: Rockbridge County, April 16. West Virginia: Bluefield, April 22. District of Columbia: Washington, April 16 (average of 36 years, April 27). Maryland: Plummers Island, April 18. Pennsylvania: Sandy Lake, Mercer County, April 22; State College, April 24 (average, April 26). New Jersey: Fort Lee, April 21. New York: Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, April 14; Ithaca, April 23. Connecticut: Portland, April 27. Rhode Island: Kingston, April 21. Massachusetts: Nahant, April 22. Vermont: Rutland, April 26. New Hampshire: Hancock, April 29. Maine: Phillips, April 28. Quebec: Montreal, April 30. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, May 4. Nova Scotia: Wolfville, May 3. Prince Edward Island: Mount Herbert, May 13. Newfoundland: Stephenville Crossing, May 22. Louisiana: New Orleans, April 7. Mississippi: Deer Island, April 19. Tennessee: Memphis, April 19. Kentucky: Bowling Green, April 27. Missouri: St. Charles, April 21. Illinois: Chicago region, April 7 (average, April 20). Indiana: Richmond, April 25. Ohio: Oberlin, April 16; central Ohio, April 15 (average, April 28). Michigan: Ann Arbor and Detroit, April 27. Ontario: London, April 23; Ottawa, May 8. Iowa: Ames and Hudson, April 30. Wisconsin: Sheboygan, April 25; Madison, April 26. Minnesota: Minneapolis, April 22 (average of 32 years for southern Minnesota, May 3). Texas: Atascosa County, March 28. Kansas: Lake Quivira, April 25. Nebraska: Omaha, April 24. South Dakota: Sioux Falls, April 30. North Dakota: Argusville, April 30 (average, May 16). Manitoba: Aweme, May 4 (average, May 14). Saskatchewan: Indian Head and Lake Johnston, May 11. Mackenzie: Fort Simpson, May 14; Mackenzie Delta, May 31. New Mexico-Silver City, May 6. Arizona: Tucson, April 26. Colorado: Denver, May 12. Utah: Uinta Basin, May 8. Wyoming: Lake Como and Torrington, May 10. IdahoPocatello, May 13. Montana: Fortine, May 12. Alberta: Glenevis, May 12. California: Altadena, May 15 (only spring record). British Columbia: Okanagan Landing, May 2; Nulki Lake, May 26. Yukon: Forty Mile, May 20. Alaska: head of North Fork of Kuskokwim River, May 16; Bethel, May 27.

Late dates of fall, departure are: Alaska: Nunivak Island, August 22; St. Michael, August 25. Yukon: Dawson, August 29; Macmillan Pass, September 4. British Columbia: Mushwa, September 8; Arrow Lakes, September 24. Washington: Prescott, September 11. California: Rodeo Lagoon, Mann County, October 18. Alberta: Glenevis, September 1. Montana: Fort Keogh, September 12. Wyoming: Laramie, September 13. Utah: Zion National Park, September 22. Colorado-Clear Creek, September 3. Arizona: Phoenix, September 16. New Mexico-Glennio, October 21. Mackenzie: Mackenzie Delta August 15; MacTavish Bay, August 22. Saskatchewan: Redberry, September 1. Manitoba: Treesbank, October 13. North Dakota: Lower Sounis Refuge, Upham, October 4; Cass County, September 23 (average, September 18). South Dakota: Faulkton, September 30. Nebraska: Minden, October 19. Texas: Anahuac, October 18; Glenrio, Deaf Smith County, October 21. Minnesota: Minneapolis, October 15 (average of 17 years for southern Minnesota, September 24). Wisconsin: Madison, October 19. Iowa: National, October 15. Ontario: Ottawa, September 17; Sundridge, October 18. Michigan: Sault Ste. Marie, October 13. Ohio: Ashtabula County, October 18; Buckeye Lake, October 13 (average, October 1). Indiana: Lake and Porter Counties, October 12. Illinois: Chicago region, October 21. Missouri: St. Louis, October 17. Kentucky: Bowling Green, October 8. Tennessee: Memphis, October 6. Louisiana: Baton Rouge region, October 24. Mississippi: Gulf coast, October 24. Newfoundland: Tompkins, September 18. Nova Scotia: Bridgetown, September 30. New Brunswick: Grand Manan, September 16. Quebec: Quebec, September 23. Maine: Winthrop, October 22. New Hampshire: Monroe, September 20. Vermont: Woodstock, September 20. Massachusetts: Worcester, October 16; Swampscott, November 17. Rhode Island: Providence, October 8. Connecticut: West Hartford, October 24. New York: Schenectady, October 25; Rhinebeck, November 16; Brooklyn, November 30. New Jersey: Union County, October 23 (average of 12 years, October 8). Pennsylvania: Renovo, October 15. Maryland: Cambridge, October 22; Solomons, December 12. District of Columbia: Washington, October 16 (average of 15 years, September 25). West Virginia: Bluefield, October 11. Virginia: Rockbridge County, October 27. North Carolina: Louisburg, October 13; Raleigh, October 12 (average of 9 years, September 29). South Carolina: Mount Pleasant, October 22. Georgia: Augusta, October 22. Alabama: Brewton, October 8. Florida: Pensacola, October 22; Fort Myers, October 24. Bahamas: Cay Lobos Light, October 30.

Early dates of fall arrival are: Yukon: Sheldon Lake, Canol Road, August 7. California: Mann County, August 13; Cactus Flat, San Bernardino County, August 16. Montana: Chief Mountain Lake, and west of Sweet Grass Hills, and Billings, August 12. Wyoming: Fort Steele, Carbon County, August 9. Utah: Uinta Basin, August 11. Colorado: Estes Park, July 16. Arizona: Mormon Lake, August 17; Camp Verde, August 27. New Mexico: Glenrio, August 25. Manitoba: Treesbank, August 21. North Dakota: Cass County, August 13 (average August 16). South Dakota: Faulkton, August 10. Kansas: Doniphan County, August 23. Oklahoma: Fort Sill, August 29. Texas: Mission, August 5. Minnesota: Minneapolis, August 14 (average of 11 years for southern Minnesota, August 27). Wisconsin: Beloit, August 14. Iowa: National, August 14. Ontanio: Sundnidge, July 13. Michigan: McMillan, August 6. Ohio: Lucas County, July 23 (1932); Buckeye Lake, August 14 (average August 24). Indiana: Whiting, August 10. Illinois-Chicago region, August 1 (average August 20). Missouri: La Grange, August 14. Tennessee: Quebec and Nashville, August 21. Louisiana: Baton Rouge region, August 15. Mississippi: Biloxi, August 11. New Brunswick: Kent Island, July 31. Maine: Seguin Island Light, August 5. Massachusetts: Belmont, August 1. Rhode Island: Block Island, July 29. Connecticut: Hartford, July 17. New York: Elmhurst, Long Island, July 20. New Jersey: Cape May, July 23. Penusylvania: Berks County, August 7. Maryland: Kensington, July 21. District of Columbia, Washington, July 28 (average of 13 years, August 12). Virginia: Fort Belvoir (10 miles south of Alexandria), August 16. North Carolina: Raleigh, July 21 (average of 7 years, August 3). South Carolina: Clarendon County, July 7. Georgia: Athens, August 18. Alabama: Greensboro, August 25. Florida: Pensacola, August 19, Boca Chica Key, August 26. Cuba: Cienfuegos, July 8 and August 20; Batabano, Habana, August 20. Jamaica: August 5. Puerto Rico: Mona Island, August 18. Barbuda: August 25. Senora: Bernardina River, September 4. Guatemala: Sierra Cuchumatanes, September 15. Nicaragua: near Bluefields, September 19. Costa Rica: base of Volc~n Turialba, August 12. El Salvador: Lake Olomega, August 31. Panam~: east coast of Panama, September 18. Colombia: Santa Marta region, September 8. Venezuela: Tucacas, Estado Falc6n, October 19. French Guiana: Cayenne, October 14.

Egg dates: Alaska: 5 records, May 29 to June 20.

British Columbia: 5 records, June 5 to 27.

Maine: 30 records, May 28 to June 13; 23 records, May 30 to June 6, indicating the height of the season.

Pennsylvania: 16 records, May 25 to June 22; 11 records, May 31 to June 7.

Quebec: 8 records, May 22 to June 27; 5 records, May 26 to June 1 (Harris).



This northwestern race is described by Ridgway (1902) as similar to the eastern race, but “larger, especially the bill; coloration of upper parts less olive (more grayish sooty), that of under parts less yellowish usually white, with little if any yellow tinge. Young much darker above than that of S. n. ‘noveboracensis, the feathers entirely dusky (except the bully tip), instead of olive with a subterminal bar of dusky.” He gives as its range: western North America; breeding from Minnesota (north of Red Wing), western Nebraska (Sioux County), and probably the more northern Rocky Mountain districts of the United States to Alaska (whole of wooded districts), and East Cape, Siberia; southward during migration througbout western United States (Including Mississippi Valley), more rarely through Atlantic coast States (New Jersey, District of Columbia, Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, etc.), to the Bahamas (New Providence Island, February), Cuba (Santiago, November 18), Island of Old Providence, Caribbean Sea, Cozumel Island, Yucatan, through Mexico and Central America to Oclombia (Chirna, province of Santa Marta, February), and to Cape St. Lucas.

Dr. Nelson (1887) says of its range in northern Alaska: “In the wooded interior, as at the Yukon mouth, it is abundant, and, in fact, is one of the most common bush-frequenting birds throughout the entire fur countries, extending north even beyond the tree limit.”

Its migration route seems to be mainly east of the Rocky Mountains, as it is apparently only accidental in California and farther south along the Pacific coast of Central America.

Nesting: Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1874) give us the following short account of what were probably the first reported nests of Grinnell’s waterthrush: “Among other memoranda given me by the late Mr. Kennicott was one furnished him by Mr. Lockhart, to the effect that, at Yukon River, June 21, 1859, he had shot a female Water Thrush as she flew from her nest. This contained five eggs, and was concealed under a small pile of drift, close to the river, but under large willow-trees. This was not lined with down. At the same locality another nest with six eggs was also obtained. This also was on the ground at the foot of some willows near the water. It was made of moss, and lined with very fine grass.”

Henry C. Killingstad writes to me from Mountain Village, Alaska: “These birds nest wherever there is brush or tree growth. The presence of water is a foregone conclusion here where everything is wet. I found one nest on June 13, 1943, under the upthrust end of a piece of driftwood 20 feet from the Yukon. Earlier in the same month I saw several birds carrying nesting material along a spring-fed trickle through the alders north of the village. This little stream is not more than 2 feet across, but where it cuts into the tangled alders it makes many tunnels and labyrinths through which the birds can be found feeding day and night.”

Richard C. Harlow has sent me the data for a nest that he found north of Belvedere, Alberta, on June 17, 1926; it was well-hidden in the overhanging upturned roots of a spruce tree, a foot above stagnant water, on the edge of a wet, swampy portion of the woods; it was made of leaves, weed stalks, mosses, and fern stalks.

Eggs: Grinnell’s waterthrush lays from 4 to 6 eggs to a set. These are apparently indistinguishable from those of the northern waterthrush. The measurements of 21 eggs average 19.1 by 14.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 20.7 by 15.3, 19.8 by 15.4, and 16.0 by 12.7 millimeters (Harris).

Voice: Although he never made a record of it, Aretas A. Saunders tells me that, from his limited experience with it, he believes that the song of Grinnell’s waterthrush is “distinctly different from that of the northern waterthrush.” But published accounts indicate that there is a decided similarity in the songs of the two subspecies, which one would naturally expect to find. And H. C. Killingstad adds: “At Mountain Village, this bird does not act as it does in the States. Its loud, clear, and pleasing song is heard from bush and tree tops, one of the most characteristic voices in the bird chorus. This song is a pleasant surprise to one accustomed only to its metallic alarm note. For the past two summers, 1942 and 1943, a favorite singing perch of one of these birds has been the top of a 30-foot radio antenna pole in the middle of the village and only a few feet from an Eskimo cabin door. From this perch the song rings to both ends of the village, a half mile distant each way.”

Fall: William T. Shaw (MS.) thus pleasantly portrays an early stage in the fall migration of Grinnell’s watertlirush: “When midAugust nights are cool in Saskatchewan and one awakens to morning sunrays slanting over low, wild meadows that glisten lightly with the whit.e of frost, presently there comes from the margin of the sedge-grown, spring-fed lakelet nearby the sharp, evenly spaced call note of the waterthrush, early reminder of the southern drift of migration. Here, on August 20, 1943, this bird first came down out of the northern territory on its, way out. It is water-loving and inhabits moist rims of streams and lakelets, comfortably shaded by trembling aspen, black poplar, and willow. It is noticeably solitary, more rarely coining in pairs during migration. Through the past few years, it has arrived with dependable regularity beside my camp at Livelong, in northwestern Saskatchewan, remaining a week or ten days through storm or shine as the weather happens to come, before it passes on. To find it, look low by the water’s edge, among the outer radiating willow stems, now lightly touched with yellow tints of Autumn, where shade has all but banished grass growth, and dark, damp prairie soil soon emerges into the waters of the pool; there is found this oddly marked, graceful bird of trim sparrow size, but in malmerism and habit one uniquely set aside unto itself.”

Arthur T. Wayne (1920) evidently considered Grinnell’s waterthrush to be the prevailing form in South Carolina on migrations. He writes: “On one occasion during a heavy rain storm one night in September: I think on September 12, 1912: I saw vast hosts of WaterThrushes in a swamp near my house on the morning of that day, there being in sight hundreds in the area of a hundred square feet, and I estimated that there must have been certainly twenty-five thousand or even more birds in the portion of the swamp I explored that day.”


Thomas T. McCabe and Alden H. Miller (1933) have published a study of the geographic variation in the northern waterthrushes, to which the reader is referred, as it is too long to include here. From their study of the characters involved in these variations they conclude that a new name is desirable for the waterthrushes that breed in British Columbia. They summarize the subspecific characters of the new race as follows: “Dorsum between olivaceous black and dark grayish olive; underp arts with yellowish averaging less than in S. n. noveboracensi~ but more than in S. n. notaliiis; wing and tail averaging small; tarsus as in not al~ilis.”

They give the breeding range as “central interior British Columbia, extending with some diminution of characters through northern British Columbia.”

Its migration extends as far south as Panama.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

Let others know your thoughts or ask an expert

Would you like to get new articles of birds (Once a month?)

No SPAM! We might only send you fresh updates once a month

Thank you for subscribing!

No thanks! I prefer to follow BirdZilla on Facebook