If you listen closely and long enough, every rivulet, stream and river has a song – each note, measure and verse comprised of every force that has ever shaped it and every creature that has ever drawn life from its waters. And if these watery lifelines have songs, then their most striking melodies are sung by its most charismatic and vocal citizens, the birds.
Dippers have a vast repertoire of vocalizations that can cut through the background noise of loud rushing water. Unlike most songbird species, both male and female dippers sing. Their melodic complex songs can last several minutes.(Randolph Little/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab ML8992)
On the braided shallows of the Platte River, it is the great pulsing chorus of cranes and waterfowl on migration in spring. On a meandering prairie creek in the Nebraska Sandhills, it is the sweet rolling sonnet of sparrows and larks in summer. And along the swift tumbling streams high in the Rockies, it is the bright frolicking solo of the American dipper – North America’s only aquatic songbird.
I first got to know the American dipper when I was a teenager on a family trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. We had signed up for a ranger-led hike and trout fishing excursion. Our guide, Jerry Spangler, made a point to show us something noteworthy about the natural world at every turn, and when we arrived at our destination, he leaned over to me and gestured to a chunky, charcoal-gray bird along the inlet of the lake where the cutthroat trout were spawning and I would take my fishing spot. At first, I was much more intent on trying to tie a fly onto my leader and catch those beautiful fish, than I was on watching a bird repeatedly bobbing up and down, hopping on rocks and weirdly dunking his face underwater. But when that same bird suddenly flew and landed on a boulder next to me and started to sing, he got my full attention. His sweet song and that singular moment have lingered in my mind to this day.
Through college and into my 20’s, I wandered many mountain streams, a flyrod in one hand and a camera in the other, and a dipper would often be my companion. But it wasn’t until later, long after I had traded a fly rod for a camera full-time, and when I began looking at my home watershed – the Platte River – did I see the connections from the mountains of my youth to the water in my drinking glass at home, 500 miles downstream in Nebraska’s eastern plains, and how this little bird and I were so bound together.
The American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), otherwise known as Ouzel (pronounced ooz-el), is akin to a trout with feathers. They make their homes along swift cold-water streams, usually in high country, living in a beautiful yet harsh and violent world. They eat what trout eat – wading, dunking and diving through riffles, pools and rapids, hunting for a steady diet of aquatic insects, and sometimes even small fish and fish eggs. Once I even saw a dipper suddenly shoot up from the water to snag a mayfly out of the sky like a flycatcher, then drop back down to eat it on a boulder before diving underwater again, headed upstream.
During breeding season, dippers build volleyball-sized, dome-shaped nests just above the high-water mark on rock faces, bridges and diversion structures, and sometimes even behind waterfalls. They are meticulous, versatile builders whose nests are comprised of bits of the entire range of plant communities that make up their riparian habitat.
Dippers move into their nesting territories early in the spring while snow and ice still linger. Their territories can be just a few hundred yards to over a mile long. Both adults work together to construct the nest. The female will eventually lay 4-5 eggs and, while she sits sheltered in her earthen lodge-shaped home, the male will bring food to her. When the chicks hatch after 14 days of incubation, acquiring food becomes a full-time job for both adults, and they are in constant motion to fill multiple begging mouths.
Late last spring, during a several-day vigil at a nest in Colorado’s Poudre Canyon, I made a point to record a hash mark in my journal each time a parent flew in with food to feed their 4 hungry chicks. From 530am sunrise to 800pm sunset, my tally was a staggering 260 times! This averaged out to a food delivery every 3 minutes. Imagine all the energy burned by the parents that must also feed themselves – and to do that all day, every day, for roughly a month until the chicks fledge.
Dippers may raise two broods during the summer, a necessary strategy as flash floods and severe weather events can destroy nests, washing eggs and nestlings downstream, especially early in the season. A week after my vigil at that nest, a rainstorm coupled with high temperatures and rapid snowpack runoff raised the river to flood stage, and the nest, its chicks and all that strenuous effort was washed away.
After breeding season, dippers become vertical migrators, spreading out from their nest territories, often wandering up higher into drainages to newly revealed food sources as snows retreat. In winter, they move back down the watershed, often congregating together around stretches of ice-free open water that holds enough food underneath the surface to sustain them. Survival is hardest in the depths of winter, and times can be lean, but even in snowstorms and subzero temperatures, dippers seem undaunted. Where most birds are usually silent in winter, dippers sing.
It is that song that puts a sparkle in the eye of Heather Knight. Years ago when I first met her, she was the land steward for the Nature Conservancy’s Phantom Canyon just upstream of Fort Collins, Colorado. We were walking a river trail along the North Fork of the Poudre River, and Heather was talking about the dipper’s presence on the preserve and their beautiful, trilling song. As if on cue, a dipper came zooming around the bend of the river, taking the corner like a race car and with a “Zeet! Zeet! Zeet!” whizzing through our frame of view.
Later, Heather would introduce me to David Leatherman, retired forest entomologist for the Colorado State Forest Service, author and intrepid birder, whose poetic description of how a fallen pine tree gives life to a stream, had once brought me to tears, and who, with one email to his network of birders, had dozens of generous people offering up locations and anecdotes of dippers for me, all along the Front Range.
One of those persons was Steve Den, a retired schoolteacher, former Harley rider, and rock-n-roll-loving man with a heart as big as the mountains, and a poodle affectionately named Bear. Steve lives in the village of Poudre Park in Poudre Canyon, but he grew up at the other end of the watershed in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, where the Platte joins the Missouri River on its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Steve proudly hangs a Nebraska Cornhusker flag outside his modest cabin he calls “The Den,” and his backyard has been the Cache La Poudre River for almost four decades now. Those waters run deep through his veins.
Despite 2 knee surgeries in the last 3 years, Steve was my scout, advocate and guide who not only found dipper nests up and down the canyon, but also assigned each of them a name (The Ledgers, Meatball Bridge, Stairway to Heaven, to name a few). Most importantly, he now affectionately calls me his neighbor downstream. We are all connected.
Today American dippers are neither federally listed as threatened nor endangered, but they are critical indicators of ecosystem health and the quality of water in cold-water streams. In the upper reaches of watersheds, dippers are more protected from direct pressures of modern development, but they are not immune to pointed sources of pollutants. Old mineral mines, abandoned, forgotten or never reclaimed, can still leach toxic chemicals into streams that may deceptively appear, at a distance, as part of an idyllic mountain postcard scene.
In lower parts of the watershed and on wintering grounds, they will be increasingly compromised with dam and diversion and urban development as we press further into the mountains, all activities with the potential to alter natural flow regimes. Then there is climate change with downward trending annual snowpack, more rapid runoff caused by spiking winter temperatures, beetle-killed forests and wildfire-torched soils that inhibit the land’s ability to absorb water like a sponge and release it slowly as the land needs.
Like the range of their brethren the native cutthroat trout, I imagine the American dipper’s range too will shrink, as they are forced to live higher and higher up watersheds, increasingly squeezed by pressures from all sides. For a bird that evolved over millennia, finely tuning its life cycle to nature’s rhythms of healthy rivers and streams, the dipper serves now as our watershed messenger in the high country, a modern “canary in the coal mine,” if you will, and what their populations tell us is important: if the quality of their future is uncertain, so is our own because issues in any watershed accumulate downstream.
It has been over 30 years since I first encountered these remarkable little birds in the Colorado high country, and I still return each year to a particular trail that most of the way parallels a mountain stream. There at a certain point I veer off trail down a hill and tuck myself away in a pocket of sunlight along a moss-covered bank to listen and to wait.
In this place, water dances chaotically among millions-year-old granite boulders. It rushes and gurgles, pitters and patters, ticks, bubbles and pops, making its way downstream. And beneath that bed of sound there is another, and if I really un-focus my hearing (like solving an acoustic Rorschach puzzle), I can almost detect the rolling melody of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” pulsing in similar tone, rhythm and beat. Above me, aspen quake in the upslope breeze as the sun, tracking across the sky, flashes through arrow-straight pines. And here if I wait long enough, a dipper will almost always take center stage, singing his heart out with crisp trills and whistles, while dunking, diving and dipping at the knees, and in that bright moment, the world is complete.
“His music is that of the streams refined and spiritualized. The deep booming notes of the falls are in it, the trills of the rapids, the gurgling of the margin eddies, the low whispering of level reaches, and the sweet tinkle of separate drops oozing from the ends of the mosses and falling into tranquil ponds.”
–John Muir 1894