American Dippers Live Right at the Edge of Roaring Streams

Another of my bird-nerd wishes when we went out west was to see an American Dipper.  This tiny aquatic songbird lives near rushing streams, and doesn’t hesitate to dive right in.  In fact, American Dippers can walk on the bottom of a rushing stream at depths of up to six feet in search of caddisfly larvae and other waterborne treasures.

Inconspicuous but Amazing

Once, hiking in the Grand Teton area, we watched one hopping in and out of the water, walking underneath to gather tiny aquatic insects.  We each had a toddler on our backs, so videography wasn’t really an option. But I knew when we went back out west that I wanted to see one.  On a crowded trail in Glacier, we wandered over to a waterfall with a tripod, binoculars, and cameras, and it didn’t take long before a small inconspicuous gray bird was flying back and forth.  We watched for over an hour and we could finally see a small overhang with mosses and ferns that the bird seemed to return to regularly.  I was never able to catch it diving into or emerging from the stream, but obviously the bird was very comfortable right at the edges of the splash zone.

Precarious Nests

Dippers make their nests of moss and ferns on a slight outcrop of stones near the water.  The only way we were sure this one was a nest was because the bird kept returning, and then, through binoculars, we could see a little mouth appear through the moss, begging for food.

Flashing Eyes

In a lot of these photos and video footage, you’ll find a bright white flash to their eyes.  It’s not your imagination, it is a nictitating membrane, a sort of extra eyelid that can protect the lens of the eye from dust or water, and it protects the dipper’s eyes from water debris as they move between the water and the drier air of the banks.  In the case of the dipper, it’s rather white, so it gives the bird the appearance of startling white eyes that switch right back to the shiny eyeballs we expect.

John Muir's Favorite Bird

The tiny American Dipper seems to get its name from the bobbing and dipping action as it uses wings and tail to balance.  It was once called the Water Ouzel, and naturalist John Muir was so entranced by these little streamside residents that he wrote an entire chapter in his 1916 book, The Mountains of California, about the natural history of this one species. He says,

The waterfalls of the Sierra are frequented by only one bird, –the Ouzel or Water Thrush. He is a singularly joyous and lovable little fellow, about the size of a robin, clad in a plain waterproof suit of bluish gray, with a tinge of chocolate on the head and shoulders. In form he is about as smoothly plump and compact as a pebble that has been whirled in a pot-hole, the flowing contour of his body being interrupted only by his strong feet and bill, the crisp wing-tips, and the up-slanted wren-like tail.

Longer Nature Observation: uncut video

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