Saturday, July 13, 2013

Life Through The Lens - American Dippers

[Note - This will be the first of a monthly series highlighting a bird I have seen, photographed, and find particularly interesting]

Few birds are as daring as the American Dipper, a diminutive species that inhabits streams, rapids, and waterfalls in the mountainous West.  In order to find their preferred food, insect larvae, Dippers leap into the frigid torrent of water.  Completely submerged, they either "fly" or walk along the river bottom, turning over stones to find their prey.   Dippers are specially adapted to the sometimes icy mountain streams - they have unusually thick feathers, more like a duck's than a songbird's.  Another, more fascinating adaptation is a large oil gland that secretes the bird world's version of Gore-Tex below the bird's tail.  Dippers will rub their bills in this oil and spread it all over their feathers, making them water-resistant.
Dippers get their name from the continuous bobbing they do while on land, possibly a way to communicate over the deafening sound of waterfalls.  They also communicate using a variety of chirps and whistles.  Dippers nest along cliffs near water, where they construct mossy hollows for their eggs.  The bird above, in Glacier National Park, had a nest just below the impressive Virginia Falls, where it and its mate would continuously bring their catch.  I spent upwards of an hour observing these birds, and they came within just a few feet of me after one of their dives.  If you are ever in the Rockies, Cascades, Sierras, or any other Western mountain range, I encourage you to look along streams for these slate-gray birds.  You can learn a lot by just sitting on a rock and watching them, like I did.  They are one of the most fascinating creatures I've come across - the perfect bird for my first Life Through The Lens.
The only dipper I saw in Canada was this bilingual fellow educating the visitors on the fragility of the canyon walls.  Dippers nest on canyon walls, so I think his statement about "never going on them" is a bit of a stretch... but is still a good message.

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