Amazing American dipper swims through winter
Fishermen see them. Kayakers and rafters see them. Walkers on the recreation path along Gore Creek see them.
American dippers are songbirds of clear, cold and fast-running streams and can be spotted on the edge of the ice or on rocks at water level. Dippers are plump, dark gray and stubby-tailed. They are active little birds, commonly seen bobbing up and down, swimming, diving, frolicking and splashing in the shallows.
The American dipper, also known as the water ouzel, works clean freshwater streams, where invertebrates and insect larvae cover the rocks and crevices on the stream bottoms.
Even though they do not have webbed feet, the dipper’s legs and toes are strong enough for swimming. The bird can also dive down to the bottom in swift currents by propelling itself with its wings as if it were “flying” underwater. It then uses its legs to scramble along the bottom in order to scour the slippery rocks for food.
Dippers are equipped with clear inner eyelids that act like swimming goggles so they can see while foraging underwater.
I once saw a Dipper diving in and out of Gore Creek early one cold morning when it was 10 degrees below zero. How can the bird survive this? Dippers have adapted to cope with icy waters.
First, the dipper has a gland near its tail which produces an oily waterproofing agent, which it spreads liberally on its feathers using its bill. Secondly, the outer feathers that cover its body are carefully arranged in an overlapping pattern similar to shingles on a roof.
The dipper also spends a significant amount of its time preening – that is, carefully combing its feathers into the perfect arrangement to shed water. Dippers have super-thick, downy inner-feathers that are highly insulate the birds from cold air and icy waters.
Dippers bob up and down constantly and flash their white eyelids to attract potential mates and communicate with other dippers. They often fly less than a couple of feet off of the surface of the water, flapping their wings quickly, and emitting a fast, high-pitched, buzzing, “chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp.”
If you are lucky, you can hear the flute-like melodious song of the dipper as it woos its mate on a fine spring day. To rear its young, a dipper builds a camouflaged nest out of moss on an overhanging bank near water level on the river’s edge – or under a bridge.
When watching birds or mammals, ask yourself how this animal makes its living? Most species occupy a specific niche within an ecosystem, so try to recognize what makes a species’ niche unique.
You may also wonder if this animal competes with others for the same food source and How its food source is slightly different from its competitor’s food? The dipper exploits a great niche in that there is an abundant supply of invertebrates and aquatic insects within clean, rushing mountain streams. Many ducks could feed on the same food sources, but dippers are able to work smaller, swifter, shallower streams than ducks. Interestingly, however, the dippers like the same food as trout.
Look for the American dipper the next time you’re near Gore Creek, the Eagle River or the Colorado River. The bridge across the Eagle River, upstream from the U.S. Forest Service station near Minturn, is a great place to see dippers from above and to witness the underwater swimming antics of this songbird of mountain streams.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are the owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, birding, and wildlife watching tours. Contact Trailwise at 827-5363.