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, fast running streams. Look for them on the edge of the ice, or on rocks at water level. Dippers are plump, dark gray, and stubby tailed. Dippers are active little birds; you commonly see them 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 streams bottom. Even though they do not have webbed feet, the dippers legs and toes are strong for swimming. Additionally, it is able to dive down to the bottom in swift current by propelling itself using its wings as if it were “flying” underwater. It then uses its legs to scramble along the bottom in order to glean 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 special adaptations that help them to cope with icy waters. First, the Dipper has a gland near its tail that produces an oily waterproofing agent, which it spreads liberally on its feathers using its bill. Secondly, the outer feathers, which cover its body, are carefully arranged in an overlapping pattern similar to shingles on a roof. The Dipper spends a significant amount of its time “preening”, that is, carefully combing its feathers into perfect arrangement in order for them to shed water. Dippers also have super-thick downy inner-feathers that are highly insulative from the cold air and icy waters.
Dippers bob up and down constantly, and flash their white eyelids to attract potential mates, and to 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, buzzy, “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, dippers build 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 does this animal make its’ living?” Most species occupy a specific niche within an ecosystem. Try to recognize what makes a species niche unique. Does this animal compete with others for the same food source? How is its food source slightly different from their competitor’s food. The Dipper exploits a great niche in that there is an abundant supply on 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, the dipper’s food preferences also overlap with 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, to witness the underwater swimming antics, of this songbird of mountain streams.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, and natural history tours. Daily private tours are available. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.