Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Dip, Dip, Dip! American Dippers know how to jig!

You might enjoy the beauty of moss covered boulders, the towering forest canopy, or the sound of the babbling water when you stroll along a refreshing creek or river nearby. Stop, look, and listen. Isn’t it beautiful sight and sound? But suddenly you see movement of a small gray flying object and hear peeping noises zoom up the creek to break your train of thought. The movement stops on a rock, and then the show can begin. You’re ready to watch the unique antics of an American dipper!

The American dippers also are often called “water ouzels” by many people. These smallish songbirds (yes, they do have a very pretty call!) are about seven inches long and have a very short tail. They are an even gray colored bird and their names come from the behavior seen when they are closely approached or maybe disturbed by another creature. This “dipping” is the act of them quickly bending their legs so that their entire body quickly moves up and down. But I feel that the best part of their show comes when they are feeding. They are very well adapted to dive underwater---and good thing since their main source of food is aquatic insects! They aren’t like ducks as they don’t have webbed feet. However they can swim across water by paddling their feet and they can propel under the water with a “swimming-style” of motion of their wings. The really cool thing in their biology is how they have nasal flaps which keep water from entering their noses. I wish I could do that! Once their heads are underwater they simply go about their business of eating the buffet of insect larvae (mayflies, stoneflies, etc…) that await them. While they have predators such as sharp-shinned hawks and weasels, their nests are much protected from them. Nest locations are normally within the spray of the water and often are hidden back in behind a small waterfall or large rapid. It is a thrill seeing one dart into a waterfall and not come back out! They often re-use the same nest year to year and they are very territorial. It has been seen where a dipper will defend over half mile of stream.

While it is easy to think of these creatures as mountain dwellers in the vast network of creeks and rivers of the Cascades, they actually are happy in lowland areas as well. I’ve seen them at the confluence of the three forks of the Snoqualmie River above the falls. It is typical to locate them in places such as Tokul Creek and the Raging River. I’ve even seen them in an area surrounded by development as they thrive along Coal Creek below Coal Creek Falls in Cougar Mountain Regional Park. Healthy streams are necessary for them to survive. Without them, the insects they depend on will not flourish. So enjoy your opportunities to locate this special bird species---they will give you a free show and also let you know the healthy state of the water is worth cheering for as well!


  1. I love the photo of the dipper, Alan. So hard to get a photo of these little guys!


  2. Thanks - I sure like trying to photograph them! I find I have to just focus my attention to a spot in a river/creek were they had stopped and see if they do so again, if they won't stay there when I first see them. They normally zoom off so quickly!