As its name implies, the Northern Waterthrush is rarely found far from water. This large, tail-bobbing wood-warbler is found in Tennessee only during migration. Its breeding range stretches across Alaska and Canada, and into the northeastern states, where its ringing song is heard in wooded swamps and bogs. It winters from southern Mexico to northern South America inhabiting a variety of wooded habitats that are often tied to mangroves. In migration it is usually found near standing water in wooded areas. The Northern Waterthrush may be present in Tennessee from mid-April to mid-May, and then again from late August to early October.
Description: Small, songbird dark brown above, white to creamy below with dark, heavy streaks, and the white to buff stripe over the eye tapers toward the rear. Waterthrush walk rather than hop, and constantly bob their tails. Males, females and juveniles are similar.
Weight: 0.63 oz
Voice: Song is loud and emphatic, starting with clear notes on one pitch, followed by more rapid phrases dropping slight in pitch. The call is a sharp, metallic chink.
- Very similar to Louisiana Waterthrush. Louisiana usually has a slightly larger bill, a broader white stripe over the eye that extends to the nape of the neck, and is whiter below with fewer brown streaks on the breast and an unstriped throat.
- Ovenbird is more olive on the back, is whiter below, has a bold white eye-ring, and orange and black crown-stripes.
- Thrushes are spotted, not streaked, on the chest.
Habitat: During migration uses a variety of wooded habitats, often near slow-moving streams, ponds, swamps, and bogs.
Diet: Mainly insects, but also snails, and occasionally small fish.
Nesting and reproduction: The Northern Waterthrush has not been documented nesting in Tennessee.
Status in Tennessee: Uncommon migrant. Found in spring from mid-April to mid-May, and in the fall from late August to early October.
Dynamic map of Northern Waterthrush eBird observations in Tennessee
- Both the Louisiana and Northern Waterthrush walk rather than hop, and seem to teeter, since they bob their rear ends as they move along.
- The Northern Waterthrush is territorial in both winter and summer. On the breeding grounds the male proclaims his territory with his loud, ringing song; on the wintering grounds he uses his sharp, metallic chink call.
- On the wintering grounds in Puerto Rico, Northern Waterthrush leave their daytime woodland foraging areas and fly more than a mile to nighttime roosts, often located in red mangrove habitats.
- In summer 2010, the American Ornithologists' Union, the authority on bird taxonomy, changed the genus of Northern Waterthrush from Seiurus to Parkesia.
Best places to see in Tennessee: May be seen statewide in appropriate habitat during spring and fall migration.
Eaton, S. W. 1995. Northern Waterthrush (Seiurus noveboracensis). The Birds of North America, No. 182 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of TN Press, Knoxville, TN.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.