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Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

The bird I'd want to be

The world was wonderfully silent; sounds muffled by the snow that clung to every twig and branch. We had spent—like the rest of you—several days moving snow around and now had time to play with it. The only sound was the soft shush of our skis as we headed toward the creek,

The creek’s winter gurgle hadn’t been silenced by the deep snow. Bank side brush, laden, leaned over the water and flat-bottomed icicles, formed on low hanging twigs, chimed.  Suddenly, loudly, a whistling, bubbling liquid series of unmelodic notes rushed towards us. Bird song on January 1?

In 1983, ten years after we moved to this valley, I started keeping a simple journal of the birds around here. Who, what, where, when information is jotted on the calendar and collected at the end of the year in a little notebook. One of the most interesting is the little pewter-grey bird that sings in the winter. Every year, the American dipper is first on the list. In ’84 a pair was singing on January 15. That year they began nest building under the bridge in March and were feeding young by April 13. The average date of first song for the last 27 years is mid January, but in ’94 there was another incident of dipper song on January 1.

Dippers are hardy, stout and indomitable little birds. Adapted to hunt under water, their wings are short and strong enough to be flippers. Their toes are long with grasping nails to pull the bird upstream, while it flips pebbles to seek out caddis fly larva. This bird was once called water ouzel, but dipper is a good, descriptive name. It dips; it lands on a rock protruding above the current and it bends it knees and it dips and sometimes squirts. White streaks on rocks marks dipper territory.  The dippers are never more than 6 feet away from the water*. A pair defends a reach of creek long enough to provide good hunting. Around here, it seems to take about a quarter mile to feed a family. They sing/scold loudly while chasing intruders out of their stretch.

Every river we have floated from British Columbia to Colorado has supported dippers. Their requirement seems to be ours—clean, fast water. When a river slows down and silts accumulate, like the Smith does when leaving the valley between the Big and Little Belt Mountains, dippers are absent. Lower Bull River has dippers, the Clark Fork Delta doesn’t.

In 1985, sitting quietly on the creek bank, I was startled by the sight of a dipper being pursued by a hawk. Both birds were flying rapidly towards me, about one foot above the creek. Suddenly, the dipper dove into the water, the hawk still in blind pursuit. The goshawk—unlike the osprey—isn’t suited to underwater hunting, but under it went. A big splash. The hawk flew up to a low hanging alder branch. Yeah, yeah, we are not supposed to attribute human emotions to animals—but that bird was disgusted with itself. It shook water disdainfully from one wing at a time and perched for a while, gathering its thoughts.

My favorite attribute of dippers is their ability to live so intimately with running water. The little birds know how to use every rapid, each hole and ripple of their watery world. Not for them the long, dangerous, arduous migrations; they have found a habitat with year-round bug supply. The species has been molded by clean, fast-running water.

About the time of nest building, the scold song changes, and the pair seem to be singing songs to each other. When they sing under the cement bridges that span both forks of Elk Creek, the arias reverberate as if from a concert hall. In March of ’97 while standing quietly on the East Fork Bridge, I heard loud dual singing and was astounded to see a pair of dippers take a high flight. They spiraled up at least 60 feet above the creek and, flying in unison, headed up stream and out of sight. Researching this strange occurrence, I came across a description of mating displays in “Birds, Their Life, Their Ways and Their World”: ...there is a display flight, rarely seen, in which two dippers fly much higher than usual, at 50 -100 feet, with loud and continuous song.*

Rarely seen indeed. Although I try to pay attention, I have never seen a dippers’ honeymoon again. 

Last summer at one of the great Heron yard parties, an unusual young man asked me what bird I would like to be. Without thinking, I replied dipper. Mathew’s choice was raven.  A good choice, our most intelligent bird; yet I’ll stick with the little grey homebody who sings year round.

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Author info

Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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editorial, birding, dipper, early birds

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