Species profile: American Dipper
"Suddenly it went completely under water, right out of sight! It was the moment we had been waiting for."
Published: January 1, 1987
"No cañon is too cold for this little bird, none too lonely, provided it be rich in falling water. Find a fall, or cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream, and there you will surely find its complementary ouzel [dipper], flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained, and neither seeking nor shunning your company . . . He is the mountain streams' own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows."|
John Muir, 1894
One of the most interesting birds in North America is the American Dipper, a small grayish bird less than six inches long. Rotund, with a short tail, rather heavy legs for its size and white-ringed eyes, it is unique in that biologically it is forever linked to mountain streams. Its habitat in both summer and winter is cold, fast-running waters. Hardly a water bird, judging by its unwebbed toes and wren-like song, it seeks its food along the edge of streams, between rocks and, most surprisingly, beneath water, walking upstream along the bottom or swimming with the use of its short wings.
The American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), as it is known officially and scientifically, is a songbird, a member of the feathered tribe known as passeriformes, the perching order of birds. In checklists and bird books the dipper is placed between the creepers and the wrens. It is its constant habit of teetering, or dipping its body up and down by flexing its legs, that gives it its name. Dippers can be found from the Aleutian Islands, down through the mountainous regions of Alaska, Yukon, Alberta, Montana, Idaho, through part of California, into Mexico and even as far south as Panama.
My first view of a dipper was in Colorado when, in a large group of visiting ornithologists, I momentarily glimpsed a small, dark bird flitting along a stream in a heavily wooded canyon. "Dipper!" Someone shouted, and people hurriedly checked the bird off their lists. I never counted that as much of a dipper, but in October, 1977, while on a short trip with friends to Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana, I became more closely acquainted with this small, energetic bird. The circumstances were particularly pleasant and I felt privileged and indebted to the naturalist who wrote in a park brochure that a certain nature trail, which led to a waterfall and stream near the edge of St. Mary Lake, was "a good place to expect dippers."
Considering that it was mid-October, the high peaks all about us were snow-covered, and the famous Going-To-The-Sun highway, which leads to Logan Pass was closed because of snow, we were not too hopeful about finding a dipper. The next day, however, Logan Pass was cleared. We happily drove up the highway, marveling at the frosted trees high on the cliffs, at shining ribbons of water plunging down from the heights, and right beside us, at times close enough to touch, impressive new formations of ice-spikes, lacey ribbons, and sparkling draperies.
At the pass we stopped and floundered on foot along a trail through deep snow. We were wearing parkas and facing a stiff wind. A light snow had formed curious inch-long, bladed shapes along one side of every branch and twig of the twisted, deformed conifers at treeline here on the Continental Divide. But the sun was bright and at mid-noon in the parking lot a small boy, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding mountain landscape, took advantage of the snow-free macadam surface to run about with a skateboard. One father and his two sons began a snowball fight in the fresh, softening snow, and it was from that scene that we drove down from the pass. We soon passed from winter to autumn scenery and even saw green plants in profusion on some sunny slopes, but frequently there was running water in sight, coming down from the new snow on the upper levels.
It was late afternoon when the three of us left a small parking lot to descend a trail to what we were now calling the "dipper stream" Before us, now and then seen through openings in the trees, lay the broad reach of St. Mary Lake, stretching for miles, dark and serene, mirroring the changing weather conditions. Around and about us, pines, cedars, and spruce crowded down the slope to the lake. We walked in single file, listening for the muted roar of the falls that would indicate one end of the trail, stopping when we had a good view of the lake to search in vain for grizzlies along the distant beaches and shoreline.
When we reached the falls, the trail was wet and the air was cool and damp, misty from the spray that arose from the noisy falling water. A damp blanket of moss covered the adjacent slopes which, where struck by sunlight, seemed to glow, giving off a bright, shimmering green light. We stood long, drawn to the sheer glory of constantly moving water, enjoying the play of light, the miniature rainbows that appeared and then disappeared with each light breeze. Though we saw no dipper we relished the sight of clear water sweeping over rocks mainly of two primary colors, red and green, terms which hardly describe the lush beauty of the slabs, boulders and stones that lay beneath the water and all about us. The rocks were not so much red as cinnamon or magenta, the soft hue of old, weathered red bricks — and silvery white, palest green, a greenish sheen reminiscent of sage plants seen in different lights. On the cliffs that towered above us we had noticed an immense band of red rock, hundreds of yards thick, iron-stained, ancient Cretaceous sea floor, contrasting sharply with the generally gray and green mass of other layers that reared upwards from the roadbed. Brought tumbling down by frost and gravity, by the force of falling water, these cliff remnants lay at our feet, a feast of color and form.
Somewhat discouraged, having read that dippers often build their little mossy nests close to waterfalls and even after the breeding season could be found in the vicinity, we decided to follow the stream along its length, still hoping to find our bird. Large boulder bars, gravel flats, and small plateaus cut asunder gave an indication of the increased force and amount of water plunging down this stream bed in spring and early summer. We crossed a small wooden bridge, hewn from logs, all of us finding our ways separately, pushing through thickets and tumbled log heaps, seeking the elusive dipper. I slid noisily down a gravelly slope, rounded, water-worn stones clattering beneath my feet, gingerly walked out onto an old, battered log swaying in the water and peered around a corner into a deep pool where yellow aspen leaves spun in eddies. My two companions, having made their way ahead of me by going directly to the lakeshore, urgently called my name. Quickly I climbed back up onto level ground and soon found myself on an open stony terrace beside the lake. And there it was . . . a dipper!
My friends had already made themselves comfortable and were watching the bird where it perched on, of all things, a plank bridging the shallow water at the stream mouth. I sat down and leaned against the trunk of a tree to inspect the bird, which was no more than 20 feet in front of us, studying it closely with binoculars, anxious to observe as much detail as possible before it flew away. But, to my delight, instead of fleeing, it began to feed, hopping lightly off the plank onto slippery rocks, walking along in the icy cold water as casually as a sandpiper in a pond.
Watching it at close range, my mind was ticking over fast, trying to record its behavior, trying to recall what I had read about the habits of this curious creature. Although I remembered reading about its rapid eye-blinking, in which the third eyelid or nictitating membrane sweeps across the eye, the flashing of this opaque, whitish membrane was startling. The constant blinking gives the bird a peculiar rakish air. Like the dipper's teetering habit of bobbing the whole body, the blinking has no known function. Some ornithologists have suggested that it has a cryptic value, the eye and body movements helping to make the bird more obscure in an environment of sun and shadow and dancing lights where movement is the rule and an unmoving bird might be more conspicuous and vulnerable. Whatever the purpose of the flashing eyelid, I liked it; it seemed as if the bird were trying to hold our attention.
Our dipper ran in little spurts, darted about with quick movements, turning over golden leaves, prying about to left and right, darting its head forward to seize something — a snail? — then with a quick upward flip of its head, gulping down the morsel. We cheered on the little bird whenever it neared the water, applauding with smiles and laughter when it ran in right up to its breast to seize something on a twig, then saw it suddenly plunge its head beneath the surface! Momentarily, a small silver plume of shining water engulfed its fore-body. A split second later it was back out, teetering, constantly dipping its short tail, flashing that white eye-patch as if to acknowledge its own daring feat. A brisk shake of its short wings sent out a little spray of water, then it stood still, slightly crouched, while we held our breaths, afraid it was about to depart.
Then it flew, a fast little flight that brought it even closer to us. It began to feed again, making quick little forays into the water, ducking its head under, then popping out and onto a rock, turning over leaves, seeking the tiny invertebrate animals that give it sustenance. Gradually it came closer to us, working its way upstream, and we could see that its dark gray, compact plumage remained dry. Suddenly it went completely under water, right out of sight! It was the moment we had been waiting for and we shouted with delight, but when it suddenly reappeared, we sat quiet and watchful. Gradually it made its way further upstream, occasionally darting into deeper water where it waded along, breasting the current that swelled up around its body, making its own little rapids as it hiked along. Its former name "water ouzel" came to mind, a name suggesting some animal other than a bird, a sort of feathered weasel, something that slips in and out of water more rapidly and readily than one would expect of a bird said to emit long bursts of melodic song like some wren or thrush.
Several times more the dipper plunged out of sight, each time emerging several inches upstream . . . it was an enchanting sight. The small stream, tumbling over glistening stones, became, in the presence and activity of the dipper, the rushing, sparkling mountain stream so often described as the habitat of this strange little bird. Though other birds migrate and escape the cold chill of winter and scarcity of food, the dipper stays in mountainous regions. When long, cold periods freeze even fast streams in the upper reaches, it moves down to lower altitudes, but it is always drawn to the sight and sound of moving water, its home, its source of food, even at extreme sub-zero temperatures.
The dipper, which had flown back to the stream mouth, stood on a stone outlined against the dark, placid lake. It had begun to snow, a light drift that seemed to be coming down from the tumultuous clouds boiling and streaming off the high peaks at the far end of the lake. The sun, just below the distant rim, produced a bright white glow, a corona along the whole length of the rugged ridge, a dramatic lighting effect that shifted moment by moment as the clouds continued to resolve their quarrel with the highest peaks. On the steep slopes opposite us, across the lake, the spruce trees appeared almost black, but the lake rippled and reflected long silver streamers of light where wind and snow touched its surface. The mountain and lake scene was a large backdrop against which to measure a dipper, but they seemed to go together well, a perfect setting.
My mind roamed from the dipper to the mountain landscape and back again. One moment I watched the distant clouds streaming off the lofty peaks, felt swayed by the great heights and powerful forces at play where rock and sky came together, then suddenly my thoughts were back to my immediate surroundings: my silent companions, and especially the small bird perched on a stone in the stream. I could hardly comprehend the vastness of the mountains, but the bird at my feet was alive, close and real, more compelling in its quick movements, and I felt some kinship with it that I could not feel for the mountain walls and cold lake.
Suddenly, across that vast silver and black mirror, came buzzing a second dipper! With a soft "brrt" call it swung in to land in the shallow water on the edge of the lake, close to the first bird. Because they are mostly solitary birds except during the breeding season, the presence of two dippers was a rare sight. If we expected to see some interaction, we were disappointed. Both birds waded about, at times breast deep in water, occasionally reaching down to pick up some morsel, but they were seemingly unresponsive to each other. It was a good time to leave. We were cold and a little stiff for we had been watching for more than 40 minutes. Fully satisfied with our experience, we slowly got to our feet and backed away, taking a final long look at the dippers before they were out of our sight below the cobble terrace we were climbing.
With the lowering of the sun behind the peaks and an increasingly overcast sky, the evening light fell swiftly. Though we stumbled back up the trail in a gloomy half-light, my spirits soared, bearing pleasant visions of dippers. It seemed an end, but there was one more surprise. "Listen!" Someone exclaimed, and down from the dark clouds and drifting snow came the unmistakable sound of geese. We strained to see through the pines, searching, waiting, as the calls grew plainer, and then we saw a long, loose flock of Canada Geese swerving, milling, heading down the lake, honking ceaselessly. As if unable to decide what to do, the flock broke up as some birds veered off. After a moment, however, they circled about until they were all back in formation, almost a V, flying westward into the wind. We stood in the cold evening, listening as the goose calls grew fainter, then reluctantly withdrew from the shiny stones and rushing water of the dipper stream.
Robert Nero is a Wildlife Specialist with the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources, and has studied a variety of birds including the Great Gray Owl for 18 years. In addition to technical writing, he has authored The Great Gray Owl and Redwing.||