Writing on the Wild Side #14 – The Amazing American Dipper
By – Mike Denny: Yes, it is a New Year and here in the beautiful Walla Walla Valley it is all about moisture accumulation. Every living organism requires water and is completely dependent on the water that is coming our way, this month and on into the next three months. This valley is wonderful and green in the spring and on into the summer months because of the snow and rain. It is wonderful to have this water account fill up now so that we can benefit later. Here in the land of “many waters” so much beauty and benefit comes with all the water found here.
In this blog we will visit a resident species of native bird that has discovered the amazing streams coming out of the western face of the Blue Mountains. These protected native birds live in and under streams like Mill Creek, Coppei Creek, Dry Creek and even some very small creeks in the head waters of many drainages. I am speaking of the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) also occasionally called a Water Ouzel. This 7.5 inch long slate gray bird looks much like a large wren and has a short stiff tail, pink legs, feet, and rounded wings.
This amazing bird has some astounding behavior. It can dive down into cold-water streams and literally flies through the water from rock to rock searching for insect larvae, pupa and sometimes snail and fish eggs. They also will grab and feed on minnows and young fish, crustaceans and mollusks. This water bird ranges from central Canada and southeast Alaska south across in inter-mountain west through Mexico and on down into Central America.
One quick story- One time my wife and I were birding along the Rio Humo in south central Costa Rica when above the rapids and roar at 8700’ I heard a de-deet de-deet call upstream from us. Here we were in the tropics high in the Telaminca Mountains. We looked at each other and asked what on earth could that be? We both said it sounded like a Dipper from Mill Creek. As we slowly moved up along the shoreline littered with great pink granite boulders we heard the call again and to our surprise there bobbing up and down on a granite rock in mid-stream was an American Dipper! What a surprise to see an old friend in this far off country.
Dippers have special adaptations that allow them to walk underwater in very cold fast water. They have the ability to see underwater and to determine distance. This outstanding bird is also used as an indicator of clean, healthy streams. This very unique bird builds a round ball nest out of mosses, lichens and grasses under a bridge or on a stream side rock face. The nest has a hole in the side where the adults pass in and out of the nest. This nest ball is about 12 inches wide and tall and it blends into the surroundings so well that very few people ever see these nests. When you come to visit this spectacular valley travel east up Mill Creek Road and at the bridges stop where it is safe and watch and listen for these amazing bobbing birds.
Remember that the Walla Walla Area has to be seen to be believed. Come join the Tuesday walkers, a great group of birders, around Bennington Lake on Tuesday Mornings at 9 am.
Thank-you Mike Denny