One of my winter walking routes takes me along the banks of the Kettle River in NE Washington State. During one of these walks I noted a very distinct bird song coming from somewhere downstream and in front of me. “Cheep, cheep, cheep” then a “pip, pip, pip” and that followed by a short, sharp whistle. I surveyed the winter bare cottonwood branches before me but could not find the bird. Camera in hand I walked a bit closer to the sound. It paused, I paused, and a moment later the song continued. Still with no bird in sight I stepped slowly closer. Another pause and then another repetition of the song. At my closer proximity to the sound source realization dawned I'd been looking to the wrong elevation. The song source was closer to the ground, to the stream bank. I eyed the bare wild rose bushes along the riverbank. No bird visible. A few more steps, another bar of the song, and when I finally observed the bird a question immediately pooped to mind – “A dipper?”
Later, a bit of research showed me the American Dipper has the spotlight as North America’s only truly aquatic songbird. Birders who have been around the woodlot a time or two may know this chunky, solid gray bird with the slightly brown head as a Water Ouzel. But the uniqueness of the Dipper does not stop there, indeed they are one of the very few birds that can feed by walking along the bottom of a swiftly flowing stream. Whether they are walking or “flying” submerged the American Dipper catches all of its food on or under the water. Another feature sets this otherwise common aquatic bird aside from the rest of the avian flock – not only are American Dippers known to fly directly into the cascade of a waterfall, they sometimes nest behind the falls on rock ledges completely hidden behind the curtain of falling water. While the habitat for Dippers ranges from sea level up into the alpine reaches the prerequisite is clear, cold turbulent streams flowing through forested zones.
Observing the behavioral traits of the Dipper we note it again sets itself apart from other aquatic birds, which tend to be “tail-bobbers” in contrast to the characteristic full body “dip” of our subject. Notes Seattle Audubon Society, “This bobbing, and the flashing of the white upper eyelid, may be visual communications that are important because of the loud environment that American Dippers tend to inhabit.”
And yet another trait signifying the unique environmental adaptation of the Dipper is the creation of a large, mossy dome nest, up to a foot in diameter, immediately adjacent to turbulent stream waters and utilizing the spray to keep the moss alive. These living nests are generally covered in a weave of grass, bark strips and moss with a single opening low and toward the water. Inside is a soft cup of grass, leaves & moss – a perfect bed for the eggs.
So on your next walk along the stream side keep an ear open for the song of the Dipper and an eye peeled for the tell-tale body bobbing of this unique North American bird.