Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush in North Carolina by Bill Majoros (Creative Commons BY-SA)

Louisiana Waterthrush in North Carolina by Bill Majoros (Creative Commons BY-SA)

Sometime in early April, I hear the ringing song of a Louisiana waterthrush near our Plummer’s Hollow stream. One of the first neotropical migrant birds to return, he comes winging in from as far south as northern South America and southern Cuba.

This handsome brown warbler, his whitish breast streaked with brown, looks more like a thrush than a warbler. Along with his congener, the northern waterthrush, the Louisiana waterthrush wades on long, pink legs in streams and bobs his tail and rear like a spotted sandpiper.

I spend a lot of time along our mile-and-a-half, first order stream, watching and listening to these fascinating birds. By mid-April there are usually four males staked out along the stream singing, defending their long, narrow territories and courting the returning females. It’s important to catch their singing early, though, because as soon as they pair up, the males slow down and almost stop singing.

A favorite place for waterthrushes is below our Waterthrush Bench, and last spring their activity was especially interesting. On April 18 I watched two singing waterthrushes bobbing their tails as each one tried to stay above the other when they landed on mossy logs, tree branches, and in the stream itself. They moved several hundred feet upstream before flying back down stream, and I wondered if they were two males in a territorial dispute or a pair involved in a courtship ritual.

Louisiana Waterthrush in Ohio by Matt Tillett (CC BY)

Louisiana Waterthrush in Ohio by Matt Tillett (CC BY)

The last day of April, as I sat on Waterthrush Bench, I watched a waterthrush as it poked about in the puddles of a backwater, pulling aside rotted leaves in what ornithologists call ”leaf pulls” as it searched for food. Although 89 to 98% of waterthrush feeding consists of quick, jab-like strokes called “picks,” “leaf pull” is an alternate strategy. In both cases, they are searching for aquatic insects and invertebrates. According to one study in northeastern Connecticut, before the leaves emerge waterthrushes engaged in “leaf pull” 42% of the time and “picks” 54%, but “leaf pulls” decreased and “picks” increased as their breeding season progressed and trees leafed out.

After my waterthrush stopped “leaf-pull,” it waded about belly-deep in the water. Then it flew up on a moss-covered log spanning the backwater to preen. All the while it preened its breast, neck, belly and under its tail, that tail kept pumping as regularly as a metronome.

Years ago, again on the last day of April, in the deepest part of the hollow, which is overhung with hemlock and beech trees, I walked quietly downstream and saw a pair of Louisiana waterthrushes in the water in front of me. They didn’t notice me when they turned over wet leaves in the stream. As I followed and watched, the male walked a couple yards behind the female. Unlike most warbler species, the male and female look alike, so I was relying on a description of this courtship tactic by ornithologists. The male made a “zizzing” sound and fed the female. Then they continued alternately foraging and poking at the stream bank. After I followed them for fifteen minutes, they suddenly saw me, chipped warning notes, and flew off.

Last spring, on the fourth of May, a Louisiana waterthrush swayed and scolded on a branch overhanging the road near Waterthrush Bench. Somewhere nearby in the road or stream bank there must have been a nest with eggs. I remembered my son Steve’s discovery a quarter of a century ago of a nest he found in the road bank as he walked up the road. The female flushed in front of him and performed her broken wing act. Following his description, I easily found the nest four feet from the ground, tucked in over a rock well-padded with dead leaves. An overturned sapling provided a roof above the five whitish eggs spotted with irregular brown spots that lay in a nest of dried grasses.

Louisiana Waterthrush nest by Todd W Pierson (CC BY-NC-SA)

Louisiana Waterthrush nest by Todd W Pierson (CC BY-NC-SA)

The nest had been built on the south side of the ravine by both parents. They dug a shallow cup in the bank’s soil and hauled in fallen leaves from the forest floor to fill the cup and provide a short pathway to the nest, a task that ornithologists say takes three to four days. Incubation by the female lasts 12 to 14 days and the altricial nestlings go from naked to fully feathered in nine or 10 days when they fledge. The nest Steve found did produce not only nestlings but fledglings, and I saw both the nestlings and their fledging.

Since then, we’ve never found another nest but suspect that most are along the stream bank and in the interstices of uprooted trees, which are the usual nesting places for Louisiana waterthrushes.

The bird that scolded me last May then waded into the stream and poked up food from the wet moss on the rocks or from the swiftly-flowing water. Like the dippers of the western United States, Louisiana waterthrushes are wedded to clean, running streams. It jabbed quietly in the crevices, living its enviable life in the moving water whose babble blocks out all other sounds.

Its affinity for water makes it an ideal species to use when assessing the ecological health of streams, researchers discovered at the Powdermill Nature Reserve in southwestern Pennsylvania. This biological field research station of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh is best known for its long-running, year-round, bird-banding program begun in 1961 by Robert Leberman.

Louisiana Waterthrush foraging in the Eno River, NC by Bill Majoros (CC BY-SA)

Louisiana Waterthrush foraging in the Eno River, NC by Bill Majoros (CC BY-SA)

Leberman’s assistant, Robert Mulvihill, now at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, along with Leberman, chose the Louisiana Waterthrush as a model for looking at bird populations back in 1996. After all, two streams — Powdermill Run and Laurel Run — hosted Louisiana waterthrushes. But those two streams differed in one important aspect. Powdermill Run’s water has a neutral pH of 7, but Laurel Run’s was an acidic pH of 5, the result of acid mine drainage from a small, hand-dug coal mine on nearby private land.

More than 50 years after this 30-year-long disturbance, it still impacts Laurel Run despite the best efforts of a local watershed association that installed a Successive Alkalinity Producing System to filter water through organic material and limestone into a settling pond to lower the acidity and remove heavy metals, as well as an attempt by the Department of Environmental Protection, using bioremediation techniques, to further improve stream quality.

Consequently, Louisiana waterthrushes breed early and abundantly on Powdermill Run and late and sparsely on Laurel Run because of the lack of macroinvertebrates, especially caddisflies and mayflies, in the acidic Laurel Run. In fact, by 2009, no waterthrushes bred on Laurel Run, yet over the more than ten years of monitoring, Powdermill Run remains a hot bed of successful, breeding waterthrushes. Apparently, the availability of the proper food — namely macroinvertebrates that favor clean water — is very important for attracting breeding Louisiana waterthrushes.

This study also made some natural history discoveries about Louisiana waterthrushes, according to Mulvihill, who directed the research. The males of this supposedly single-brooded, monogamous species occasionally engage in opportunistic polygyny, defined as pairing with two females at the same time. Eight times during the study, waterthrush pairs re-nested or double brooded after their first successful fledging of young. One female that started out on Laurel Run in her first year of breeding, transferred to Powdermill Run and brought off successful families for at least eight years.

Louisiana Waterthrush by Big Dipper 2 (CC BY-NC-ND)

Louisiana Waterthrush by Big Dipper 2 (CC BY-NC-ND)

Today, Steven Latta, Director of Conservation and Field Research at the National Aviary, continues Louisiana waterthrush research, studying one of its wintering grounds in the Dominican Republic. He’s especially interested in how water quality there affects the survival of the birds and whether or not they return to their breeding grounds. He also wants to use the species to understand what affects neotropical bird populations throughout the year. He writes, in a recent article in Birding, that “in addition to acidification, breeding success is likely linked to sedimentation and other forms of stream contamination, combined with the loss of surrounding vegetative cover in the riparian corridor… Preliminary results suggest that older, more mature forests with relatively high canopy cover, coupled with perennial streams that do not run dry in mid-summer droughts, are key drivers to reproductive success for such bird species.”

Back at Powdermill, scientists are now concerned about the impacts of natural gas drilling on water quality, macroinvertebrates and Louisiana waterthrushes. And they have joined other ornithologists in the state to study the affects of hydraulic fracturing on streams throughout Pennsylvania. They hope that birders will help by counting waterthrushes along streams and reporting their numbers to their local watershed association. Two territories per kilometer are considered a healthy number of waterthrushes along a stream.

Louisiana and northern waterthrushes were once lumped along with ovenbirds into the genus Sieurus, which means “to shake or move the tail,” but for decades Dr. Kenneth C. Parkes, the late curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, argued that the waterthrushes should be separated from ovenbirds. They differ too much in behavior, singing, structure, the way they move, their juvenile plumage and how long they keep it, as well as other differences that only ornithologists could sort out.

Louisiana Waterthrush shows a very wide and long white line over its eye - photo by Ken Schneider (CC BY-NC-SA)

Louisiana Waterthrush shows a very wide and long white line over its eye - photo by Ken Schneider (CC BY-NC-SA)

It took a Ph.D student in the Molecular Systematics Laboratory at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, George Sangster, who admired Parkes’s work, to prove his point. Using genetic analyses, he discovered that ovenbirds were only distantly related to waterthrushes.

On the strength of his work, the North American Classification Committee of the American Ornithologist’s Union agreed to put the waterthrushes in their own genus. Furthermore, they accepted Sangster’s name — Parkesia — in honor of Kenneth C. Parkes because of “his lasting contributions to avian taxonomy, molt terminology, hybridization and faunistics.”

Sangster finished his manuscript about his discovery in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club in late July of 2007 and “hoped to inform Dr. Parkes about my intention of naming a genus after him,” Sangster told Paul Hess who wrote about this in PSO Pileated, The Newsletter of the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology. “It was when I looked on the Internet for a contacting address that I found out that he had passed away only a week before.”

Only three other Pennsylvanians have been honored with a bird genus — William Bartram, Thomas Say, and Alexander Wilson. All of them lived and worked in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and all were residents of Philadelphia.

How sad that Parkes never knew of his genus. But how serendipitous that one of the species Leberman and Mulvihill decided to study at Powdermill has not only become important in stream ecology but also honors a fellow western Pennsylvanian who, like them, devoted his life to the study of birds.

The late Dr. Kenneth C. Parkes (left) and Robert Mulvihill at Donegal Lake near Powdermill, 1982

The late Dr. Kenneth C. Parkes (left) and Robert Mulvihill at Donegal Lake near Powdermill, 1982

 

Hiking the Ghost Town Trail

Blacklick Creek from the Ghost Town Trail

Blacklick Creek from the Ghost Town Trail (click all photos to see larger versions)

No trace of December’s snow remained.

“It might as well be spring,” I thought as I hummed the lines of an old song. But it wasn’t spring.  It was January 7 and a balmy 60 degrees.  Seduced by the perfect day, my husband Bruce and I set out to hike portions of the Ghost Town Trail in Cambria and Indiana counties.

This 36-mile trail over a former railroad bed winds through the Blacklick Creek Valley and is named for several coal-mining towns that were abandoned in the 1930s.  Two separate sections, one near the western end of the trail in Indiana County and the other in Vintondale in Cambria County, go through gamelands.

First, we tackled the western section, leaving our car in the Heshbon parking area.  Water gushed over and around massive rocks in the river-sized Blacklick Creek below us on our left.  Across the creek, a mixed hemlock and deciduous forest stretched as far as we could see.

Spotted wintergreen along the Ghost Town Trail

Spotted wintergreen along the Ghost Town Trail

After several hundred feet, we crossed into SGL#276. The only tracks in the packed limestone trail were those of white-tailed deer. Healthy-looking hemlock trees and rhododendron shrubs grew on the hillside to our right.  It seemed an idyllic setting until we reached Auld’s Run.

A small waterfall tumbled over layers of orange rock, was channeled beneath the trail, and flowed into Blacklick Creek.  We could see coal spilling from the hillside and beyond that an enormous flattened hill of coal waste striped orange, red, brown and black.  We looked a little closer at Blacklick Creek and its seemingly pristine water.  Orange and blood-red puddles pooled in the creek’s backwaters.  The “ghosts” of coal mining, in the form of acid mine drainage or AMD, still haunted the trail.

But we were soon past the area.  Once again, the hillside was wooded, although it had steepened and was strewn with boulders as big as shacks.  One was perfectly square and from a distance, I thought it was a shack.

Coal waste along Blacklick Creek

Coal waste along Blacklick Creek

In another tangle of boulders, this one above the creek, where even white-tailed deer feared to tread, I found a lovely bed of spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata). Their white-striped evergreen leaves adorned the winter forest floor where it was protected from deer browsing.  Green clubmosses, not a deer food, were abundant in the open stretches of woodland.

In open places beside the trail, the dried seed heads of goldenrod, asters, and meadowsweet reminded me of late summer’s colorful abundance.  Staghorn sumac still held aloft their pyramidal-shaped clusters of red seeds.  Tulip trees, growing tall and straight in a floodplain forest, offered their seeds to a pair of black-capped chickadees.  Along the creek oak trees still clung to clusters of dried, brown leaves. A belted kingfisher emitted its rattling call as it flew downstream.

Once we glimpsed a black gray squirrel, a melanistic color phase more common in the northern part of its range, scamper across the trail in front of us. Translucent water, sparkling in the sunlight, dripped from beneath thin layers of rock on the hillside and red sphagnum moss mopped up the moisture.  I heard the “peter-peter” of a tufted titmouse and the call of a hairy woodpecker emanating from the forest above.

Acid mine drainage in Auld's Run

Acid mine drainage in Auld's Run

After three-and-a-half relatively level miles, we turned around and chose a picturesque spot on one of the benches overlooking the creek to eat our trail lunch.  Afterwards, as we approached the parking lot, we encountered the first people we had seen all day on that section of the Ghost Town Trail.

One-half mile east of Dilltown, still in Indiana County, we took a shorter hike over a network of trails in the Blacklick Valley Natural Area, which is across Blacklick Creek from the Ghost Town Trail.  The Blacklick Trail beside the creek was particularly lovely, although in this area the water was flat.  Black-capped chickadees welcomed us and cedar waxwings keened in the treetops.

David and Penny Russell had donated this 713-acre plot of land to Indiana County back in 1995, and its varied habitats, including a series of mature evergreen tree plantations, are no doubt magnets for wildlife and songbirds.  But despite the unseasonable warmth, it was mid-afternoon on a winter day–the nadir of both the day and the year–and we mostly enjoyed the quiet ambience of the place.

Vintondale, Pennsylvania

Vintondale, Pennsylvania

By then we had walked more miles than I liked to think about, and Bruce promised me that our last stop would be brief but unusual. We drove into the old coal town of Vintondale in Cambria County.  Unlike the “ghost towns,” Vintondale is still very much alive.  But it has only a quarter of the population (528 in 2000) that it had back in 1910 (2,053) when the Vinton Colliery was at its height of production.  At that time, 32 languages and dialects were spoken in the town.

By the early 1980s, long after the long-wall coal mines had closed and the coal company absconded around 1956, leaving behind the usual acid mine drainage, the site where the Vinton Colliery buildings had stood had become a dump.  That’s when a Rural Abandoned Mineland Project had covered the site with waste coal four-to-eight feet thick.

Then, in 1994, T. Allan Comp, an historic preservationist working for the National Park Service’s National Heritage Areas Program, approached Vintondale with a plan that combined art and science to clean up the industrial site. He called it AMD&ART. He wanted a park for the people that would showcase their history and the natural beauty of the area. The citizens wanted a ball park.  Working with them and with a dedicated group of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteers as well as with a host of innovative designers and artists, the AMD&ART Park, beside the Ghost Town Trail, was dedicated in 2005.

Etched image of the Vinton Colliery, part of the Great Map installation

Etched image of the Vinton Colliery, part of the Great Map installation

Winning numerous awards, this remarkable site was a joy to visit even on a winter day.  Young couples with children played in the four-acre recreation area while we wandered past the six keystone-shaped ponds that change the orange water pouring out of mine portal No. 3 from a ph of 2.8 to 6.1 before it flows through a wetland and into Blacklick Creek.  Lining the first treatment pond with limestone that pulls the iron out of the water, each successive pond filters pollutants from the water and turns them into solids that a seven-acre wetland, planted with 10,000 wetland plants and attracting wood ducks, killdeer and other birds in season, captures and retains.

Furthermore, citizens rallied to plant trees in what is dubbed the Litmus Garden back in 2001.  The idea was to choose native trees and shrubs that would turn the same color in autumn as the pool around which they were planted — from red to orange to yellow and finally to clean blue-green at the end of the treatment pools.  White ash, red maple, sweet gum, black cherry, shadbush, sassafras, sugar maple, tulip poplar, big tooth aspen, American hackberry, black willow and sycamore — one thousand trees in all were planted by 150 volunteers including former Vintondale natives who had returned to help.

Plaque explaining the AMD treatment process

Plaque explaining the AMD treatment process

Those folks who bike or walk this section of the Ghost Town Trail, which is surrounded by State Gameland #79 except for the town of Vintondale, can stop to read the excellent signs that explain the AMD process.  They can also view the ART part of the project.  One is a nine-by-fifteen foot mosaic modeled on a 1923 Sanborn Insurance map of the Vinton Colliery by artist Jessica Liddell. Framing the map are 131 granite tiles, 54 of which have been laser-etched with community images, newspaper headlines, and text in addition to the word “hope” inscribed in the 26 languages spoken in Vintondale at the time. The Great Map Project is so accurate that “folks that lived in the town and worked in the mine walked up and pointed out the homes that their families had lived in for generations,” artist Liddell told writer Erik Reece in his excellent article for Orion magazine about the project.   It was that article, published the month before, that persuaded us to visit Vintondale.

But the most affecting art piece is across the trail from the Great Map. In a perfect reconstructed six-by-twelve-foot Mine No. 6 Portal entrance, where miners entered the coal mine back in its heyday, are the ghostlike images of nine miners emerging from the portal during a shift-change in 1938.  Taken from home movie footage contributed by Vintondale resident Julius Morey, artist Anita Lucero diamond-etched in polished black granite the life-sized portrait of miners wearing head lanterns and carrying their lunch pails. From a distance, all we could see was what looked like a black hole framed by mine timbers.  As we walked closer, the images emerged like phantoms from another, lost world.

The Great Map mosaic at Vintondale

The Great Map mosaic at Vintondale

Finally, across the park from the Miner’s Memorial, is the Clean Slate, which was designed by University of Pennsylvania landscape architecture students Claire Fullman and Emily Nye who were the winners of a national student design competition.  Two long pieces of rough black slate, one beneath the culvert where the clean water flows into Blacklick Creek after passing through the wetland, and another higher up on drier land, which serves as a viewing platform and the beginning of a path of 10 slate steps leading visitors through what is planned to be a Carboniferous Garden when ferns were the trees of the earth.  On warmer days, visitors can stand on the wet slate and let the purified water wash over their bare feet before it flows into Blacklick Creek.

Even visiting in winter, we could appreciate the blending of art and science, human and natural landscapes.  What was once a blighted, neglected area is now enriching both the lives of Vintondale citizens and the many visitors to the Ghost Town Trail who pause to learn about this innovative approach to acid mine drainage. On those 35-acres of reclaimed mine land, Comp says on the AMD&ART website that … “we’ve established a model of holistic renewal that brings the perspective of history to mix with the discipline of science, the delight of innovative design, and the energy of community engagement.”

Mine No. 6 entrance, diamond-etched in black granite by Anita Lucero

Mine No. 6 entrance, diamond-etched in black granite by Anita Lucero

All photos are by Bruce Bonta. For more information and maps of the Ghost Town Trail and the Blacklick Valley Natural Area: www.indianacountyparks.org or call 724-463-8636.  To learn more about AMD&ART: www.amdandart.org. See also “Reclaiming a Toxic Legacy Through Art and Science,” by Erik Reece, in the November/December 2007 issue of Orion magazine.