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.
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.
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.
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.
When the dipper emerged from the water and climbed onto a rock, she was holding a very large insect pupa.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The dipper also frequently performed the bobbing, twisting dance for which the species is named.
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.
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:
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. 🙂