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The WSB and the Return of the Waterthrush

By Margo D. Beller

Thirty years ago, in early May, Pete Dunne and his team – with a special guest appearance by Roger Tory Peterson – went out to find as many birds as possible in the state of New Jersey in one day.  Pete, then as now, was based in Cape May and the contest was timed specifically to take advantage of the peak migration season for northbound birds.

Pete writes about that first World Series of Birding, as it came to be called, in this year’s Spring/Summer issue of New Jersey Audubon magazine. In 1983 there were only 11 teams. This year expect thousands of people to comb the state, showing just how much diversity a little, congested state such as New Jersey can contain. In the process these teams will raise money for conservation.

Once again, Scherman Hoffman will be fielding two WSB teams, but they won’t be rushing all over the state as will Dunne’s team or those from much further afield. Sanctuary Director Mike Anderson will be sitting on the hawk platform with his merry band from midnight May 11 (Saturday) to midnight May 12 (Sunday), tallying what they hear and see. There will be a second team led by Randy Little that will only bird for six hours starting early Saturday and keep their search to the Scherman Hoffman grounds and the nearby Cross Estate.

The Big Sit team

I wrote about my time on the hawk platform with Mike’s team last year. The group, shown at left, tallied 77 birds in 24 hours, coming in second in the “big stay” division. My favorites of the birds I saw were the barn swallow that kept zipping around and annoying the house sparrows trying to build a nest, and a lovely male Cape May warbler at eye level in the spruce just off to the right of the platform. Cape Mays have a thin call and usually stay high in the trees, making this one of my easiest warbler sightings ever.

There is still time to get involved in this year’s World Series of Birding on May 11 by making a pledge or sponsoring or joining a team. You can get more information here.

Meanwhile, as the birder-competitors get ready by scoping out prime locations and readying their routes, the birds are already making their way north as fast as the south winds will move them. They will have traveled thousands of miles from Central and South America. Most will stay a day or two in New Jersey to rest and feed before making the final push up to their breeding grounds. But some find good breeding habitat in New Jersey.

And so it was that on April 4, the first Louisiana waterthrush was recorded back on its territory at Scherman Hoffman. That territory is along the Passaic River where the River (yellow) trail runs. Along with the pine and palm, the Lousiana waterthrush is one of the first migrant warblers to arrive in New Jersey.

It is hard to believe this is a warbler. It has no yellow. It doesn’t have the striking color patterns of the magnolia warbler or common yellow-throat. It superficially resembles a thrush with stripes instead of dots. It is found along forest streams, which the Passaic is in this part of New Jersey. (It is hard to believe this gentle stream at Scherman Hoffman will become the wide river that runs through Newark.)

capp waterthrush

If you see a waterthrush on the river trail, as I have, you will likely see it on the ground, bobbing its tail as it walks along. It is brown on the back and has those stripes on a white breast. It also has bold, white “eyebrow.” There is a another bird, the northern waterthrush, that is similar in appearance and also found on the ground bobbing its tail. However, this bird prefers still water, such as a swamp or bog. It tends to have a yellow wash on the breast and eyebrow, although there are some that are white.

All of this makes telling the two waterthrushes apart even more challenging.

In his painting of the Lousiana waterthrush, John J. Audubon shows one grasping a stem of what looks like a sumac, looking up at the red berries. According to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, a typical waterthrush diet is insects, earthworms and the occasional frog or fish – not berries. Call it artistic license, I guess.

There have been several Louisiana waterthrushs sited along the Passaic in or near the sanctuary and, being a warbler, expect the crowds to be big for the Friday and Saturday morning bird walks around the sanctuary. There is something about a warbler, even a brown one, that makes birders want to get out early on a Saturday morning.

The waterthrush is among those prized by the WSB competitors. But for these migrants, just getting north is literally a life and death race. The winner gets to breed and go south again in the fall. With any luck it, or one of its descendants, will be back along the Passaic River at Scherman Hoffman next year, in time for the 31st World Series of Birding.