Have you ever caught a glimpse of an odd-looking bird diving in and out of the water or bobbing up and down along the river's edge? For those who may have wondered, that interesting little critter is The American Dipper. It is quite an oddity among birds.
What first alerted me to the dipper's presence was its vocals. It was the first time hearing this beautiful melodic singing loud enough to be heard some three hundred feet away. The sound was like that of some colorful exotic bird found only in the tropics. It brought instant intrigue. Surveying the bushes and trees along the river proved futile, so I went into stealth mode and crept down to the river. What I found surprised me. Here was this strange plump dark-colored bird. I thought to myself, "There is no way that amazing song came from that bird." This called for some birding basics: watch, wait, and listen. My patience was rewarded as I discovered these amazing sounds did indeed come from what I found to be an extremely interesting bird. Some of its behavior reminded me of certain species of waterfowl, but it also behaved and definitely sounded like a songbird.
As with any new species I hurried home and consulted my bird books and the Internet. The subject turned out to be an aquatic songbird called The American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), also referred to as a Water Ouzel. There are five species of dippers in the Cinclidae family, but the American Dipper is the only North American representative. With its plump dark grey body, long pale legs and usually upright stubby-looking tail, the dipper is easily identifiable as there is no other bird quite like it. Its behavior also gives it away. According to The Sibley Guide To Birds of Western North America, the dipper was "probably named for of its habit of bobbing its body up and down (not its 'dipping' underwater)."
Other unique features include an additional transparent eyelid which allows it to see underwater and scales which close over its nostrils when submerged. It also has stubby wings and strong powerful toes and legs which allow it to dive, walk, and paddle underwater in order to hunt for prey. What makes this so amazing is that all this is accomplished in rapid moving water found in streams and rivers. This bird is a powerhouse!
The American Dipper's main diet consists of caddis flies, dragonflies, and the larvae of both. Occasionally the dipper will dine on small fish and tadpoles. Sometimes an unfortunate dipper will be eaten by a salmon or similar fish. There has been one documented case of a Dolly Varden Trout making a meal out of a dipper that was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Perhaps the most fascinating feature of the dipper is its home-building prowess. When it comes to building a nest there isn't a species on the planet more adept at piecing together a home than a bird. All birds that build nests are superior architects, but perhaps the greatest is the American Dipper. Its nest is dome-shaped and about a foot in diameter with a nifty archway entrance near the bottom just like one that can be found in an old house. The outside is moss with some leaves and grass. Inside it makes a cup of leaves and grass to softly nestle the eggs and then the hatchlings. American Dippers build their nests on cliff ledges, behind waterfalls, on boulders, and on dirt banks or under bridges. They are always above or close to the rapid water of their stream or river habitat.
For any avid birders who have never seen a dipper, it is well worth your time to try and catch sight of one. It may take some time, but once you spot a dipper, plan to be mesmerized. I suggest finding a comfy spot to nestle down along the riverbank. Then watch ... and wait. Be sure to bring a snack and your favorite warm beverage; you may be there awhile.