More Than Meets The Eye

On a recent wilderness hike, my wife and I were approaching a waterfall when we heard the unmistakeable sound of baby birds begging to be fed. The sound stopped us in our tracks, and broad, knowing smiles appeared on our faces as we looked at one another. We hurried down to the riverbank where we found exactly what we expected. A small, unassuming, gray songbird was standing on a mossy rock near the waterfall.

American Dipper in habitat

A small, gray songbird was standing on a mossy rock next to the waterfall.

Why were we so excited to see such a plain looking songbird? Because this particular bird is far more than meets the eye. We quickly sat down on rock and became still, waiting for the show to begin. It started with a hop and a splash.

american_dipper

The show started with a hop and a splash.

The seemingly unremarkable bird was an American Dipper, and the behavior of this species is fascinating. After the dipper dove into the water, she surfaced briefly and swam while keeping her head submerged.

American Dipper swimming

The dipper swam with her head submerged, searching below the surface.

After swimming at the surface for a few moments, the dipper must have spotted something of interest. She dove, looking more like a seabird than a songbird.

American Dipper diving

The dipper looked more like a seabird than a songbird.

When the dipper emerged from the water and climbed onto a rock, she was holding a very large insect pupa.

American Dipper with large morsel

The dipper’s dive had been fruitful.

But the pupa casing was hard, and the dipper decided she needed to soften it up. She did so by bashing it repeatedly against the rock on which she was standing.

American Dipper subduing dinner

The dipper softened up the snack.

After breaking the pupa case apart and revealing a much softer looking bit of food inside, the dipper headed toward the waterfall. All of the preceding activity had been fascinating to watch, but this was the moment my wife and I were truly waiting for. The dipper paused near the waterfall to make sure the coast was clear.

American Dipper heading to nest

The dipper made sure no predators were watching before she went to the nest.

Seeing no immediate threats, the dipper continued on, passing behind the sheet of falling water. The hungry babies that we had heard earlier suddenly burst into frantic vocalization at her approach. Their bright yellow gape flanges and orange mouths could be seen jutting out of a mossy crevice as mom drew near.

American Dipper at nest

The babies could be seen and heard as mom approached the nest.

The mother dipper quickly delivered the food and then pulled a white fecal packet from the nest. As she flew back out over the river, she dropped the packet directly into the water. By removing all feces from the nest, she was ensuring that a predator would not be able to easily follow their nose to her babies. She was also ensuring that the nest would stay clean and her babies healthy. With the housecleaning duties taken care of, the dipper took a quick break on a nearby rock.

American Dipper on rock

After feeding the babies and cleaning the nest, the dipper took a much deserved break.

After a moment’s rest, the dipper went right back to feeding. After emerging from each dive, the dipper shook the excess water out of her feathers.

American Dipper drying off

A quick shake removed excess water from the dipper’s feathers.

The dipper also frequently performed the bobbing, twisting dance for which the species is named.

Dipper_Dance

The dipper dance.

After observing all of this activity for a few minutes, the dipper’s mate showed up. He delivered a quick meal, removed another fecal packet and paused on a rock before flying off downriver to continue foraging for his insatiable young.

American Dipper 1

The dipper’s mate was assisting with the nest tending duties.

So a bird that is, at first glance, wholly unremarkable, is actually anything but. I have nothing but respect for any songbirds that would choose to put their nest here:

Dipper Nest site

The red arrow shows the location of the dipper nest. The waterfall is approximately 50 feet tall.

The next time you are near a waterfall in late June or early July, keep your ears open. They may give you your first clue that something even more amazing than falling water is nearby.

*Author’s note: American Dippers do not exhibit any sexual dimorphism; therefore, the genders assigned to the birds in the above narrative were arbitrary. It could have been the male that was sticking closer to the nest while the female foraged downriver. My apologies to the birds if I got it wrong. 🙂

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6 thoughts on “More Than Meets The Eye

  1. Sasa

    What a beautiful blog on the Dipper. I never have had the honor of seeing one. I loved your narrative and
    all of the great photos and video shorts. Thank you for posting!

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  2. Trileigh

    Kevin, I just loved this post. That photo of the babies begging from behind the waterfall is prize-worthy! I’ll be following your blog – glad to be introduced to it via Tweeters.

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  3. Todd and Candy Brown

    Hi, Kevin. We also “re-stumbled” into you via Tweeters and will follow your blog. We just got some nice shots of AMDI begging behavior in Leavenworth. All the best to you and Julie. Candy and Todd

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  4. Jacqueline A. Boss

    Your blog on dippers reminded me of a field trip I led many years ago in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. It was a sparse bird day. The birds spotted a week earlier had since migrated to their winter homes. Our group came upon a beaver pond. A thin snake-like head broke the water surface. Possibly, I thought, it was a swimming snake. We watched as the thin stick-like head turned into a bird beak, obviously attached to a steel-gray bird head. Soon the head rose out of the water attached to a similar-colored, medium sized bird body. As the bird flew off, I excitedly exclaimed, “It’s a Dipper bird!” One of the group declared in disgust, “It’s ugly!” To novices the beauty of the Dipper is not always evident. Thanks for revealing in pictures the amazing aspects of the American Dipper’s behaviors. They’re beautiful!

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