Above the surface of the heavier music of the water

The Ouzel never sings in chorus with other birds, nor with his kind, but only with the streams. And like flowers that bloom beneath the surface of the ground, some of our favorite’s best song-blossoms never rise above the surface of the heavier music of the water. – John Muir from The Mountains of California

American Dipper in the sunlight

American Dipper in the sunlight

They have always fascinated me as to how they possibly survive in such a harsh environment. American Dippers live in conditions that no other songbird can survive. Most of the boulder-strewn stretches of streams in Montana have a resident pair or two of American Dippers. They song over the dull roar of the stream and feed beneath its surface. What a second isn’t this a songbird? Shouldn’t it be in a perch in the forest? I had the great pleasure of being in the company of 3 American Dippers along Rattlesnake Creek for the better part of an hour.

The most amazing behavior of the American Dipper is its ability to forage in the torrent. Their typical prey items consist of aquatic insects, small fish, fish eggs, and other invertebrates. These food items are obtained through one of three preferred hunting methods, which I was able to see all of the foraging techniques during my time on Rattlesnake Creek;

  1. Wading into the shallows, and plunging the head underwater.
  2. Swimming in deeper water, and diving to the stream bed.
  3. Leaping from a perch into the water.

Once submerged, the American Dipper uses its wings as flippers. A wonderful adaption that you can see in the cold, clear waters of mountain streams. Once along the bottom, they will occasionally grasp the surface with their strong feet.

Just before the leap into the icy waters

Just before the leap into the icy waters

Swimming and peering downward

Swimming and peering downward

What's down there

What's down there

The American Dipper is one hardy bird

The American Dipper is one hardy bird

Why are they called dippers anyway? As they perch atop of mid-stream boulder, the American Dipper consistently bobbing its entire body up and down. The behavior is very similar to ones adopted by other stream-dwelling creatures. The Spotted Sandpiper bobs its tail and rump in a similar manner, and Rocky Mountain Tailed Frogs display by raising alternate legs as they sit on top of a stone. The reason for this display may be accounted to a territorial defense that requires minimum physical effort and is visible, rather than audible as the stream noise dampens sound. Another display of the American Dipper is the flash of the white eyelids, which is visible from some distance. The American Dipper’s song is rather long and loud, both of which aid in such a noisy environment.

American Dippers spend a good deal of time preening as they are required to ensure that the feathers remain waterproof and provide insulation against the icy waters. Their preening bouts can last upwards of 10 minutes on occasion.

Note the white eyelids

Note the white eyelids

Found a singing boulder

Found a singing boulder

The American Dipper at home in the riffles

The American Dipper at home in the riffles

Facing upstream

Facing upstream

American Dipper silhouette

American Dipper silhouette

As spring approaches, the American Dipper will begin to search out nesting sites under overhanging cliffs/rocks and bridges. The dome-like nest often looks like a clump of moss, that is until a slaty dipper comes flashes out of the mass of vegetation. I will be back to Rattlesnake Creek to watch the American Dippers as the snow recedes up the slopes and the water runs higher.

Written by Radd Icenoggle

I am a native Montanan, who has spent a lifetime as an outdoors and wildlife enthusiast. I earned a degree in biology with an emphasis on habitat relations. During my studies, I had the great fortune to research and compose a thesis that explored the effects of slope aspect on...
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