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A review of waterthrush identification with

particular reference to the 1968 British record

D. I M. Wallace
Following the publication of my note on the second record of
the Northern Waterthrush Seiurus noveboracensis in Britain (Brit.
Birds, 65: 484-485), criticism of the identification came from G. J.
Oreel in the Netherlands and Dr A. D. Brewer in Canada. Both
suggested that the published details were insufficient in the light of a
recent American study of the problems of waterthrush identification
(Binford 1971). In particular, they considered the dismissal of
the Louisiana Waterthrush S. tnotacilla, because of the bird's 'finely
spotted throat', very unsafe. Further comments from Dr Brewer,
B. K. MacKay and B. Zonfrillo showed beyond all doubt that
field guide comparisons of the two species were dangerously incom-
plete. A full review was therefore undertaken by the Rarities
Committee, aided by eight observers on both sides of the North
Atlantic, the British Museum (Natural History) and, most impor-
tantly, lengthy study of Binford's conclusions. Unfortunately
unanimity of opinion has not been achieved on the identification of
the 1968 record but the reasons why the Rarities Committee con-
tinues to accept it as a Northern Waterthrush are detailed in an

Binford (1971) demonstrates that the compression of waterthrush
characters into one plate and a few text comments in all current
field guides and even some handbooks promotes a facile approach
to the separation of the two species. For example, Robbins
et al, (1966) state that 'Northern is separated from Louisiana by its
streaked throat and smaller bill'. In fact both these characters are
subject to overlap (and the risks of varying visual acuity or judge-
ment). Neither can now be regarded as diagnostic. Other characters
suffer from similar confusion. There follows a precis of Binford's all
important analyses and where relevant the comments of other
expert observers.
General character: No differences in general character are evident.
Both waterthrushes exhibit horizontal posture, furtive movements—
most characterised by a teetering walk that recalls the Common
Sandpiper Tringa hypoleucos—and skulking behaviour.
Size: Louisianas average larger than Northerns but all measure-
ments overlap. The only useful character is bill size, which in
Louisianas appears large and robust in relation to head and total
{Brit, Birds, 69: 27-33, January 1976] 27
28 Waterthrush identification
bulk. It is much less obvious in Northerns, being in scale with the
rest of the bird. Nevertheless Binford and Dr Brewer et al. warn of
overlap and consider bill size to be only 'a minor aid to field
Colour of supercilium: This is often described for Louisianas as pure
white overall, but Binford notes that the forepart (from bill to eye)
is 'always washed with grayish-olive or grayish-buff'. Dr Brewer
has also shown that in about 20% of Louisianas some faint buff
marks are visible on the rear part (from eye to nape). These do not
mask the strikingly white ground colour which, when unmarked as
in most birds, is diagnostic. In Northerns the colour of die super-
cilium is 'usually buffy-yellow', though in some (particularly
western) birds in worn spring and summer plumage it may be 'so
white as to be inseparable from motacilla'. Binford concludes that
'any bird in which [the rear supercilium] is yellowish or buffy must
be a Northern'. Dr Brewer's findings require the colour to be
uniform for such a rule to stand.
Shape of supercilium: Binford, working mainly from skins, does not
comment on this but it has become evident that there are differences
between the two species. In Louisianas supercilia are very striking,
not only in their normal whiteness but also in their width, parti-
cularly behind the eye. In Northerns supercilia are striking but their
width is uniform overall and narrower. This difference is indicated
in all plates in current literature and it is used by American field
ornithologists to separate the two species. It immediately caught
the eye of P. J. Grant, who was reminded of the similar difference
between the superciliary tones and shapes of the Moustached and
Sedge Warblers Acrocephalus melanopogon and A. schoenobaenus.
Underpart markings: The spots and streaks on Louisiana underparts
are 'usually paler (more brownish or grayish and less blackish)'
and more diffuse than those on Northern. Binford stresses that this
difference can be masked by the strength and tone of ground colour
and that again there is a small overlap in mark intensity. He con-
siders that tiiis character is only 'an additional minor aid' in
Throat colour and markings: Louisianas always have throats coloured
'pure, gleaming white'. Only in a few Northerns does this occur;
Dr Brewer found such (combined with a lack of spots) in only one
in 452 that he recently examined. In most Northerns the ground
colour of the throat is 'yellowish or off-white'.
Throat spots (not streaks) are variably present in both species.
Some Louisianas have larger and better defined spots than some
Northerns. Binford demonstrates the invalidity of earlier statements
on this character with a striking photograph and Dr Brewer has
fully confirmed a dangerous overlap between the two species. Thus,
Waterthrush identification 29
far from being the clincher in field diagnosis, the distribution of
throat markings has now been reduced to only 'a percentage field
character'. Identifications can no longer be based upon it. This said,
W. Russell has opined that there is a useful field character in the
pattern of marks across the lower throat and upper chest. If there are
many sharp spots noticeably clustered there, the conspicuous collar
or gorgette so formed is indicative of Northern.
Flank ground and undertail covert colour: In Louisianas this is 'clean
pale [to] ochraceous buff', 'pale cinnamon or fawn' and is 'usually
rather bright, often very bright'. Binford has never failed to detect
such tones in the field since they stand out as a noticeable patch
against the whitish ground colour of the rest of the underparts. In
Northerns such patches are rarely visible since the underparts usually
show a uniformly 'yellowish', 'lemon yellow' or 'nearly white' ground
colour. At one point in his paper, Binford chooses this character as
'by far the best field mark' for separating the two species, but in his
conclusions he links it with the colour of the rear supercilium. In the
often difficult circumstances of waterthrush observation, judging the
ground colour of heavily streaked underparts is, however, not easy
and Dr Brewer stresses that the absence of a buff flank patch does not
exclude Louisiana. Unlike Binford, he has also detected a yellowish
tone in the flank ground colour of that species. Once again there
appears to be a dangerous overlap.
Calls: Binford doubts that any but the most experienced water-
thrush observers will be able to distinguish the 'somewhat louder,
sharper, more emphatic and more penetrating' calls of Louisianas.
Clearly it is not sensible to quarrel (from this side of the North
Atlantic) with any of the cautions given by Binford on waterthrush
identification. I sense however that there is a residue of confusion
and that there is a risk of parts obscuring the whole ol field identifi-
cation. P. J. Grant, the only member oi the Rarities Committee to
have seen both species recently, feels that the separate debating of
the various characters in Binford's paper and elsewhere may exag-
gerate the problem of separation for European observers used, for
example, to the difficult identifications posed by the genus Phyllo-
scopus. To give a clearer impression of the appearance of the two
species in typical plumage, fig. 1 has been drawn using illustrations,
photographs and field sketches as references.


Binford gives a table of measurements which show that the wings of
male Northerns did not exceed 79.1 mm and those of females
reached only 77.4 mm. The longest bills were respectively 10.5 mm
and 10.7 mm. He found overlaps with all these measurements in
small Louisianas but larger males and females of that species had
Fig. i. The two species of waterthrush Seiurus spp. Upper (full figure), typical
Louisiana S. motacilla; (inset) head of variant Louisiana, showing occasional
throat pattern like that of other species. Lower (full figure), typical Northern
S. noviboracensis; (inset) head of variant Northern, showing rare throat pattern
like that of Louisiana. See text for fuller discussion (drawings by D. I. M.

wing lengths reaching 82.8 mm and 80.5 mm respectively, and bills

reaching 12.2 mm and 11.2 mm respectively. It should be noted
that the bill (culmen) measurements were taken from the tip to the
front of the nostril, and that the number of specimens was low (from
five to 27 in each species X sex).
In the hand the colour pattern of the vent and undertail coverts
is diagnostic. In the Northerns all these feathers are invariably
marked with a 'grayish-brown sagittate mark between the whitish
tip and the filamentous dark gray base'. In Louisianas the small
feathers are 'always immaculate' and such marks that are present
on any are irregular and discontinuous with the dark base. Binford
does not allow earlier claims that the colour of the axillaries or the
Waterthrush identification 31
concealed coronal patch assists waterthrush identification. He also
doubts Peterson's (1947) description of Louisianas as greyer birds
than Northerns.
Two other points are worthy of comment. Firstly there is the origin
of vagrant waterthrushes (and the likelihood of their crossing the
Atlantic in mid-autumn). Both Dr Brewer and W. Russell have
commented on this and, to quote the latter directly, the Louisiana
is 'a lousy candidate for a vagrant to Britain'. Its breeding range in
the east Nearctic only just reaches Canada (in Ontario) and
significantly it both enters and leaves the northern part ahead of its
congener. In autumn it is rare after mid-August and it is virtually
unrecorded at coastal ringing stations in September and October.
In distinct contrast, the Northern is known to have crossed the
North Atlantic thrice (in 1955, 1958 and 1968). Its breeding range
extends over much higher latitudes and throughout Canada except
the central North. Its autumn migration is protracted and quite
compatible with equinoxial vagrancy. Thus, although Dr Brewer
quite rightly points to the possibility of a southerly origin for a
Louisiana (quoting the occurrence of a Hooded Warbler Wilsonia
citrina in the Isles of Scilly as a telling analogy), the balance of proba-
bilities indicates that Northerns are the more likely vagrants to
western Europe. Secondly there is the question of habitat. While
nobody disputes that migrant and vagrant waterthrushes must feed
where they can, the two species do exhibit partly different preferences
in both breeding and wintering habitat (Godfrey 1966, Lack and
Lack 1973). Louisianas normally inhabit higher, dryer ground with
fast-flowing streams. Northerns normally frequent lower, wetter
levels with standing water.


Waterthrush identification is much more difficult than most current
literature indicates. It appears that observers faced with a water-
thrush (particularly a pale one) should concentrate on bill size in
relation to head, the colour of the rear supercilium, the shape of the
supercilium, throat markings and the ground colour of the flanks.
If, respectively, these are large, white, deep, diffuse and obviously
buff, the bird is a typical Louisiana. If they are unexceptional,
tinged uniformly yellowish or buff, uniform (and narrow), sharp
(and forming a collar) and lemon-yellow, it is a typical Northern.
However, many variants occur and, in their case, most hope is
afforded by the closest possible observation of bill and supercilium,
particularly the latter's shape. The previously accepted best
character (throat markings) is untrustworthy. In the hand, the
32 Waterthrush identification
pattern of marks on the greater undertail coverts is diagnostic.
The balance of probabilities indicates that the Northern is a far
more likely candidate for trans-Atlantic vagrancy on grounds of
both its more northerly breeding range in the eastern Nearctic and
its protracted autumn migration period.
The preparation of this paper would have been impossible but for the willing help
of Dr A. D. Brewer, who has performed a useful service to the Rarities Committee
in bringing L. C. Binford's study to its attention. In its completion, I have also been
assisted by P. F. Bonham, P. J. Grant, D. Goodwin and W. Russell. I thank them

BINFORD, L. C. 1971. 'Identification of Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes'.
Calif. Birds, 2: 1-10.
EATON, S. N. 1957. 'Variation in Seiurus noveboracensis'. Auk, 74: 229-239.
GODFREY, W. E. 1966. The Birds of Canada. Ottawa.
KINO, B. 1973. 'Feeding behaviour of a Northern Waterthrush in the Isles of
Scilly'. Bristol Orn., 6: 37.
LACK, D., and LACK, P. 1973. 'Wintering warblers in Jamaica*. Living Bird,
11: 129-153.
PETERSON, R. T. 1947. A Field Guide to the Birds. Boston.
ROBBINS, C. S., BRUUN, B., and ZIM, H . S. 1966. Birds of North America. New York.
WALLACE, D. I. M. 1972. 'Northern Waterthrush in the Isles of Scilly'. Brit. Birds,
65: 484-485.

Appendix. Further notes on the Northern Waterthrush on

Tresco, Isles of Scilly, 3rd to 9th October 1968
The identification of the Tresco waterthrush has been hotly disputed for over two
years. Canadian criticism, marshalled by Dr A. D. Brewer, forced two recircula-
tions, and in the course of these the record has also been reviewed by D. Goodwin,
W. Russell and Davis Finch. In March 1975, the Rarities Committee accepted it
for the third and final time. The following notes explain their decision and add
certain facts to the rather brief description published in 1973:
General appearance and racial attribution: Even allowing for the deep shade of its
habitat, the Tresco bird was unusually pale or white for a Nordiern Waterthrush.
So struck were D. B. Hunt and I by its paleness and its similarity to die 'pale race'
depicted by A. Singer in Robbins et al. (1966) that we tentatively assigned it to that
(western) race, so called notabilis. This was an injudicious act, not only because of
the problems of variant plumages discussed in the preceding paper but also
because of die continuing confusion over waterthrush systematics (Godfrey 1966
i/Eaton 1957). How an apparently pale bird got to Tresco remains a most trying
puzzle, since both Dr Brewer and W. Russell make it clear that the incidence of
such morphs in coastal north-east America is almost infinitesimal.
Bill size: The primary reason for the dashed hopes of the Tresco bird being
a Louisiana was the joint judgement of D. B. Hunt and myself that the bill was
unexceptional in size. R. J, Johns came to the same conclusion in an independent
Supercilium colour and shape: All four observers who submitted notes during the
review, and the Rarities Committee, judge that the compound of these characters
in the Tresco bird is compatible only with a Northern. Following Binford's
Waterthrush identification 33
analysis, a Louisiana is totally excluded. The supercilium colour was noted as
'yellowish' (by two observers), 'buffish' or 'whitish-buff' and it appeared uniform
in tone. The supercilium shape as drawn by myself and noted independently by
R. J. Johns was considered by W. Russell as 'specifically... indicative' of Northern.
Throat markings: As drawn, the pattern on the chin and upper throat is typical
of more than 50% of Louisianas, as assessed by Dr Brewer, but its presence does
not exclude the other species. Indeed the bird appeared more heavily marked
than the typical Northern illustrated by Binford, and Dr Brewer himself found
eight matching Northerns in a sample of 452 skins. Importantly, W. Russell
commented without prompting that the clustered appearance of the lower throat
markings was again indicative of Northern.
Flank ground colour: The lack of strikingly buff flanks is incompatible with most
Colour of vent and undertail coverts: One coloured drawing shows this coloured with
pale 'yellowish-buff' but it often looks just white. King (1973) noted it as 'dull
dirty white". It is doubtful if either record of a plumage area so 'difficult to observe'
(Binford) is certain.
Of six disputed or puzzling characters on the Tresco bird, two (general paleness
and vent and undertail coverts colour) cannot be argued to a conclusion; three
(bill size, lower throat pattern and flank ground colour) favour Northern; one
(supercilium colour and shape) is diagnostic of Northern; and only the upper
throat colour and spot pattern favour Louisiana, and are not exclusive of Northern.
It is this balance of conclusions that forms the basis of the continued acceptance
of the record.
(For help in the second and third submissions of the record, I am grateful to
P. H. Dukes, D. B. Hunt, B. King and R. J . Johns. For assistance in the evaluation
of all notes and drawings and the criticisms of D r Brewer, B. K. MacKay and
B. Zonfrillo, I thank D. Goodwin, P. J . Grant, Davis Finch and W. Russell. The
Rarities Committee also acknowledges much assistance from the last seven.)

D. J. M. Wallace, 9 Woodhill Rise, Heads Lane, Hessle, North Humber-

side HU13 O H Z