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The Little Bird from Way Down South

Article Published: Apr. 11, 2013 | Modified: Apr. 26, 2013
The Little Bird from Way Down South

The Louisiana waterthrush is naturalist Mickey Shortt’s sign of spring.
Photo courtesy of John Schwarz,

Everyone has one whether they know it or not: a sign to tell them that spring has arrived.

It may be when your daffodils emerge from under the snow or simply when the calendar indicates the equinox. Spring truly is a gift to us who have endured the winter.

Though I am constantly monitoring the natural world in anticipation for the clues that spring is near, I have come to make the arrival of a certain migrant bird my indication that spring truly has come to the High Country.

The Louisiana waterthrush, a small insect-eating bird, spends its winters as many of our other summer visitors do — in warmer climes. It is found wintering from Mexico and the Caribbean down to northern South America.

Natural cues alert this bird to leave the tropics and travel to North America for the abundance of food found in a burst of life we call spring.

This bird arrives to sing and claim its territory along the banks of a stream that it will use as the background for its nursery. This waterthrush is atypical from most migrant songsters.

While most migrant birds begin singing just before they leave their wintering grounds, the Louisiana Waterthrush waits until it arrives at its destination. And when it arrives, it sings as if it’s been anxiously awaiting the opportunity its whole life.

In early March, I started thinking of spring and could hear the three whistles of this bird’s song in my head. I consulted my journal and recalled that two years ago, I had seen the waterthrush on the Profile Trail on March 21. That particular year was an early arrival for the waterthrush, but with great hope I set out on the trail a few days earlier.

Year-round birds, such as chickadees and juncos were singing, but I was not able to see or hear the waterthrush. The days following remained very cold, but I continued my search morning after morning.

I took cold, early morning walks with my children. I drove slowly and listened every time I drove past the trail, and I watched online bird postings as others reported sighting waterthrushes in coastal South Carolina and later in the Piedmont of North Carolina. It was moving north, but I was disappointed morning after morning.

My hope deferred over a bird may have paralleled your experience of checking the weather only to find more snow and cooler temperatures in the forecast.

When I flipped my calendar to April, I just knew the waterthrush would arrive soon. And on April 3, I walked out to a familiar location. I listened. I watched. A lone chickadee song was followed by silence.

Suddenly, I heard a loud chip note. It seemed as though my day hinged on whether that chirp was a Louisiana waterthrush.

And then, another chip note was followed by three sweet whistles, followed by a few jumbled notes. It was the song that I had been waiting for.

Spring, in my mind, began at 8:57 a.m. on April 3. The song of the waterthrush that morning was the commencement to the parade of tropical migrants that brighten our forests during the warmer months with their shockingly beautiful colors and songs.

I rushed down the trail with a grin on my face and followed the song to the waterthrush. It sang, bobbed its tail and quickly flew downstream out of sight.

Mickey Shortt Jr. is a guest to “Dear Naturalist” and has served in three National Parks as an interpretive ranger. He currently serves as a naturalist with the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.

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