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PawPaws and Waterthrushes-Hidden Jewels

Sunday, June 19, 2011

This spring I took a trip to Barren River State Park in western Kentucky.  I had been asked to give a talk to the Kentucky Ornithological Society. The trip was squozed in between a couple of others, and I knew it'd be tight, but I wanted to see something of Kentucky, as I'd only been to Louisville and back. It was a beautiful place, just as I knew it would be. 

 Lyre-leaved sage Salvia lyrata turned the meadows misty blue
 and I learned something about pawpaws I hadn't known.

A few were still in bloom, but most of them were fruiting, a couple of weeks ahead of ours in southern Ohio.

 I learned that each pawpaw flower can make a bunch of little fruits, which explains something I"d always wondered. I'd see a small pawpaw tree with maybe five flowers on it, and then in September I'd see clusters of fruit. Well, those clusters all come from one little flower.  And here they are, the baby fruits forming. I was so excited I squealed.

 In September, they'll look like this, each the size of a small mango. Five in this cluster! Pretty cool.

Overhead, summer tanagers sang their halting songs in leafy fastnesses

and I crept silently through the underbrush to catch a glimpse of a pileated woodpecker and yes, I was pretending it was his huge cousin Campephilus--the setting was so perfect for seeing black, white and scarlet streaking and hitching through the watery mystery

I was helping my new KOS friend Scott Marsh--the tall one; that's my other Kentucky friend Carol Besse, president of KOS, in fetching pink-- lead a walking birding trip through the park. 

We found a phoebe nest, and Scott was tall enough to hold my camera up to immortalize its contents, which are doubtless flying and catching their own moths by now. 

It was here at Barren River State Park that I had one of my favorite-ever moments as a naturalist. Our little band of birders was walking up this beautiful stream, and there was a Louisiana waterthrush singing lustily, his wild ringing song filling the green spaces. We came to a little stone bridge and the waterthrush flew up, chipped at me twice, then flew a short distance away, watching me and bobbing his tail. It was clear to me he had a nest nearby. He might as well have said it in English.

"This is a perfect spot for a waterthrush nest," I told the group. I stood on the bank and quietly studied the opposite side, which was hung with grasses and roots. 


Just the kind of spot a Louisiana waterthrush would choose to hide its leafy, rooty little nest. Within seconds I found what I was looking for...some muddy leaves, tucked way up inside a nook in the bank, where no muddy leaves ought to be. The Louisiana waterthrush builds a little porch of muddy wet leaves that, when they dry, make a sturdy landing platform for the parents as they come and go.  It's one of the best-hidden warbler nests I know of; in fact when Hal Harrison wrote his photographic field guide to bird nests (in the Houghton Mifflin Peterson series)  the only one he couldn't find himself was the nest of the Louisiana waterthrush!

And the female waterthrush was sitting on her nest. With some difficulty, I pointed her out to everyone. It was hard to make her out. Her two white eye stripes, converging at her bill, gave her away. In this photo she's head-on, and you can see her eyes and bill. 

Knowing the gig was up, she hunkered even lower until all we could make out was one bright eye with a white stripe over it. It's under a little triangle of white grasses.

And the best part of all was that, in discovering her, we never put her off her nest. That's the beauty of listening to what the birds tell you, knowing where to look, standing back quietly, and having the right optics to do it. Serendipity favors the prepared mind.


What a treat!

But YOU found it!

What Raymond said. I'm guessing that the Swarovskis had a bit easier time of it than the Canon, though.

BTW, I may be a Cracker, but 200 years of Kentucky forebears and UK must make me at least a *little* bit Kentucky Fried! ;p>

So cool! I've wondered about Louisiana Waterthrush nests, but never knew what to look for. And paw paws are one of my favorite trees.

Hey, I've got Swarovskis, and I just went and checked, but there was no thrush in them. Not too long ago they found a dipper nest, but it was far away--are they put together the same sort of way? Hanging in the moss on a streamside rock, it was.

200 years of Kentucky forebears is bound to have SOME sort of effect.

What a great day you had! Serendipitous experiences are always such blessings! Thank you for sharing!

I had no idea that birds such built nests such as this. I'm so impressed that you found it. I also like that you got so excited about the Pawpaw flowers.

Hard to believe that that's the safest place for a small singer's nest. Do you how an evolutionist, or just an advanced birder, can explain it?

Educational as usual. Thanks.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for showing that waterthrush nest. I know they have to be nesting near my place, the habitat is too perfect for them not to. Now it's just the matter of finding it. How lovely you were able to share it with the folks on your walk.

Great find(s)! Not easy to see her on the nest even when you've photographed it for us. Glad everyone had a good look without too much discomfiting this careful mother.

Nick from Ottawa

Posted by Anonymous June 20, 2011 at 8:23 AM

I once came across an ovenbird nest. Well, I never found it but saw the parent flush within from. You have good eyes! Cool find!

May I recommend an article (the cover story, in fact) just published in Birding magazine by Felicity Newell, a young woman who helped me with my studies of the Louisiana Waterthrush for several years. It is called "A Tale of Two Streams," and it can be viewed at:

It has some wonderful photos of nesting LOWAs by Canadian wildlife photographer, Bob Wood (co-author and photographer with his brother, Peter, of an extraordinary book, Bright Wings). Also, there is a WebExtra about the cover story with comments by myself and two colleagues of mine who have spent the last dozen or more years studying this wonderful bird in its delightful habitat. You'll notice that it's hard not to use the word serendipity when talking about the Louisiana waterthrush!

Welcome to Western-Central Kentucky! I'm a bit more western here, but you're right - it really is a beautiful state. I need to go birding with you some time to take advantage of your knowledge of bird calls. I rely a lot more on visuals after more than 20 years of hearing loss. So I'm truly envious of your ability to hear and then spot these little buggers!

Thanks for sharing that wonderful Louisiana Waterthrush moment! And your description is educational. When a bird does an unexpected thing, it is for a reason. With enough knowledge and awareness, we can sometimes figure that reason out.

We usually say, "Luck is where opportunity meets preparation." I like your poetic phrasing better! :-)

Ferd, I should have credited Louis Pasteur for that lovely phrase.

One of my own favorite axioms is: Birds do nothing without a reason.

I can't find it with your pointing it out. Your ears and eyes are phenomenal!


Is it possible to purchase a print of the phoebe nest? It is so beautiful! Love the colors and the light. Soft, sweet and dreamy.

Posted by Jody McKenzie June 24, 2011 at 11:41 AM
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