The American Dipper: Under-Water Walker

By Dave Hanks

There is a spot in the south hills, of Twin Falls County, where Dippers are always viewable. It is from the bridge, over Rock Creek, which leads into the Harrington Fork Picnic area. If you wait quietly, one will usually appear. They bob-up from under the stream to flit from rock to rock, usually with some recently acquired food (aquatic insects) in their beak.

This is an unusual bird. Cold mountain streams are preferred, where it will walk along the stream’s bottom looking for larvae and other aquatic “goodies”. They will also nab tiny fish and tadpoles. A low metabolic rate and extra oxygen-carrying capacity by the blood allows this species to be under the water of cold mountain streams at all times of the year.

Also known as a Water Ouzel, it can’t be confused with any other bird. It has a chunky body that is 6 to 8 inches long. A short tail and short legs reduce the drag from water currents. Its body is a sooty gray, with a brownish tint to the head. The bill is slender (an adaptation for plucking up its food) and its eyelids (nictitating membrane) are white and very visible when the bird blinks (an adaptation for seeing under water).

Their nest is built amid the streamside vegetation or under a bridge, if one is available. Like many stream birds, it constantly bobs up and down. Molting of wing and tail feathers takes place in late summer, at which time they are flightless.

We are always on the lookout for this bird when in mountainous habitat, summer or winter. It is so unusual to see a song bird bobbing under an icy stream. Photographing them requires one to function very quickly.

(A brief stop on a mossy, mid-stream rock)