WALKING ON THE WILD SIDE
This story had been modified from the original story published in the Mountain Mail.
Frye, Lea. “You’ve seen this bird.” The Mountain Mail, 15th January 2020, pp. 14.
One of the things I love most about wildlife photography is learning about my subjects. Sometimes I will pick an animal or bird and spend months in the field studying them while I capture snippets of their daily life. A few years ago, I chose to spend time with the American Dippers, a bird sometimes referred to as a water ouzel. Upon request form a local newspaper editor, I wrote an informational article about the bird which was published in January of 2020. Today I am sharing a modified version of that article for you.
All About the American Dipper
A nondescript bird in appearance with sooty-gray plumage, the dipper has a robust song that is quite distinct. If you spend time along any number of clear streams and rivers in the Rocky Mountains you have probably heard them. You know it is a dipper when it lands on a rock, and starts bouncing up and down as if to shake off the cold, then plunges straight into the frigid water.
Their stocky build with a short tail and short powerful wings is well suited for an aquatic life. A dipper's feathers are dense to insulate against the chilly waters and have a special preening oil found only in dipper plumage that helps water proof them. Also unique to a dipper is their nasal flaps that keep water out of their nostrils allowing them to remain under water for up to 30 seconds or longer. These traits are instrumental for survival allowing the dipper to dive under water in search of food. Many who have observed the dipper in action have described having seen a bird “walking” along the bottom of a stream or river. While many would laugh in disbelief at such a wild claim, this is in fact just what they do! Using their wings as a foil in the current to push them down, they walk along the bottom of rivers and streams in search of aquatic insects, making them truly unique among songbirds.
While dippers remain in a region year round, the best time for watching dippers is during nesting season. The female will pick out a nest location along a section of stream or river she deems rich in food. Both male and female will work together to build a ball like nest of moss, leaves and grass. You can typically find them in a crevice on a cliff or large boulder, the nest will be under an overhang, and almost always over the water. With a secure and dry nest ready for eggs, the female dipper will lay a clutch of four to five eggs.
Just a few weeks of incubation and dipper babies will start to hatch. Soon you will hear them begging for food. As they grow, the chicks will peek out from the nest demanding food with loud cries. Between the insistent chirps from the hatchlings and the loud song of the dipper parents, one can easily locate a dipper family. In fact this is how I was able to locate and study several different dipper families. The mom and dad were easy to locate as they sang their song completed while making trip after trip delivering meals for these cute, but goofy looking chicks.
These well fed dipper babies will grow quickly and soon fledge one by one. A young fledgling will stay close to the nest while its dipper parents continue to feed them every four to five minutes. It's a wonder that mom and dad have any energy left after raising a brood, yet if conditions are right many dippers will have a second clutch before moving to higher grounds as the snow melt hits and the waters to start rise. The melt brings fast waters that become silted and less ideal for the dippers parents and their offspring. This is when they will migrate to higher elevations where the water stays clear and food is easy to find. This behavior of moving from high elevation to low elevation and back is defined as altitudinal migration. A journey a dipper makes twice a year in search of crystal clear waters ripe with aquatic bugs.
The months I spent observing the dippers was truly educational. The more time I spent with them the more I learned about these truly unique birds. I bet the next time you see or hear one you will stop to watch their special dipper dance.
Until next time....Lea Frye
www.leaf-images.com | Lea Frye, Wildlife Photographer | Helena, MT
Wild Animals / Wild Landscapes