Louisiana Waterthrush Details

What Species: Louisiana Waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla)

Where: Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania, and the Cordillera Septentrional of the Dominican Republic

Who: Dr. Steven Latta (National Aviary), and Danilo Mejía and Marisabel Paulino (Grupo Accion Ecologico)

When: 2007 - present.

Why: Research into declines of Neotropical migratory bird populations has often focused on fragmentation of forest habitats and conversion of habitats for agricultural or urban land uses. The causes of population declines of riparian birds (those associated with stream-side vegetation) are likely to be different and varied, but land uses resulting in sedimentation, acidification, and degradation of aquatic insect communities may be critical to the conservation of these bird species. We are studying the ecology of the Louisiana Waterthrush on the breeding and wintering grounds, identifying landscape-level factors, territory characteristics, and specific stream quality measures associated with reproductive success and over-winter survival, and assessing the use of birds as indicators of water quality and ecosystem health. We are also assessing the connectivity of wintering populations to breeding populations through isotopic markers, and providing the basis for studies of carryover effects of habitat conditions

Project Description: A Neotropical migratory bird, the Louisiana Waterthrush (hereafter LOWA) breeds in a single North American biome, has a limited population of only about 260,000 individuals, is listed as a PIF Stewardship Species, and is a Priority Species or a Species of Conservation Concern for four Bird Conservation Regions. It winters throughout Central America and the Caribbean, often on highly threatened mountain streams. LOWA's are largely dependent upon aquatic macroinvertebrates, like mayflies, that are sensitive to stream sedimentation, acidification, and inputs of other pollutants. Initial studies on breeding LOWA's suggest that territory density and size, mating success, and productivity, vary between acidic streams contaminated by mine runoff and circumneutral streams. But studies are lacking to identify landscape-level factors, territory characteristics, and specific stream quality measures associated with reproductive success or over-winter survival. To the extent that LOWA population dynamics are associated with changes in habitat quality at a variety of scales, they may be used to help identify streams at-risk, and monitor stream responses to management and recovery efforts.

This study seeks to provide baseline information to guide conservation of LOWA and other members of riparian bird communities. We are relating measures of forest cover, landscape-level land use, territory characteristics, and stream quality to LOWA abundance, demographic indices (sex and age ratios), density and territory size, body condition, site fidelity, reproductive success, and survival. We are using these data to assess the value of LOWA as an indicator of habitat conditions, and combining data from throughout the year, we are evaluating the relative importance of habitat conditions throughout the annual cycle in affecting population dynamics of LOWA. These data will generate new specific recommendations for the conservation of riparian habitat to benefit resident and migratory birds, and recommendations of the value of LOWA as an indicator of ecosystem health.

As in many of our projects, the training of wildlife biologists and managers is an important aspect of our work. Students and aspiring biologists work alongside local experts to perform all of the field work associated with this project. In 2007, 2 Dominican biologists were brought to Pennsylvania to train in LOWA field studies. After 4 months of intensive work they then returned to the DR to coordinate studies on the over-wintering grounds and to train 4 additional field assistants. In 2008-2010, we expect that at least 6 additional trainees will gain intensive experience in many aspects of avian field research techniques. Participants will learn protocols for bird captures, measurements, and the characterization and quantification of habitat variables. This not only allows us to build capacity multi-nationally, but it also helps insure the collection of high quality data with little variation due to inexperienced collaborators among sites.

Current Goals:

  • Compare LOWA presence, territory size, density, site fidelity, and return rates to biotic indices or other measures of riparian habitat quality, including landscape-level land use, territory characteristics, macroinvertebrate assemblages, water chemistry, and other physical variables at over-wintering sites in the Dominican Republic;
  • Compare LOWA presence, pairing success, reproductive success, territory size, and return rates to biotic indices or other measures of riparian habitat quality, including landscape-level land use, territory characteristics, macroinvertebrate assemblages, water chemistry, and other physical variables at western Pennsylvania breeding streams;
  • Assess the value of LOWA as an indicator of habitat conditions on wintering and breeding grounds;
  • Evaluate the relative importance of landscape, site, and territory characteristics, as well as stream conditions, in affecting population dynamics of LOWA on breeding and wintering grounds.
  • Assess the value of organic cacao plantations as habitat for over-wintering LOWA;
  • Assess the connectivity of wintering populations to breeding populations through isotopic markers, and provide the basis for future studies of carryover effects of habitat conditions;
  • Provide in-depth training opportunities for at least 6 Latin Americans through field assistantships.

Recent Results: We monitor 50-75 nests annually on streams in Western Pennsylvania, and color-band and monitor over-winter survival of 40-60 waterthrush on streams in the Dominican Republic. At all study sites, comprehensive maps are being produced that include characteristics of streams, vegetation, and surrounding land uses. Water quality and abundance of stream macroinvertebrates and flying insects is also being quantified.

Funding: This project has been supported by The Nature Conservancy, U. S. Forest Service-International Programs, and PRBO Conservation Science.

Related Scientific Publications:

Mattsson, B. J., S. C. Latta, R. J. Cooper, and R. S. Mulvihill. 2011. Latitudinal variation in reproductive strategies by the migratory Louisiana Waterthrush. Condor 113:412-418.

Newell, F. 2011. A tale of two streams: What Louisiana Waterthrushes tell us about water quality. Birding (May 2011):24-34.

Almonte-Espinosa, H. and S. C. Latta. 2011. Aspectos del comportamiento de forrajeo de la ciguita del rio
Parkesia motacilla (Aves: Passeriformes: Parulidae) en epoca no reproductiva. Novitates Caribaea 4:100-108.

Latta, S. C., and J. Faaborg. 2008. Benefits of studies of overwintering birds for understanding resident bird ecology and promoting development of conservation capacity. Conservation Biology 23:286-293.


Mulvihill, R. S., S. C. Latta, and F. L. Newell. 2009. Temporal constraints on the incidence of double brooding in the Louisiana Waterthrush. Condor 111:341-348.

Mulvihill, R. S., F. L. Newell, and S. C. Latta. 2008. Effects of acidification on the breeding ecology of a stream-dependent songbird, the Louisiana waterthrush (Seiurus motacilla). Freshwater Biology 53:2158-2169.

Latta, S. C., and M. Baltz. 1997. Population limitation in Neotropical migratory birds: Comments on Rappole and McDonald (1994). Auk 114:754-762.