THE DIPPER, frequently called "water ouzel," is one of the outstanding inhabitants of our mountain streams. It was made famous by John Muir in his Mountains of California, and is a bird dear to the heart of every mountaineer. To its many friends the dipper recalls memories of trout streams, waterfalls, and foaming cascades. Many of the birds that are found in the forests clothing the western flank of the Sierra Nevada are summer visitants only, but the dipper, while not numerous, is an exceedingly important and characteristic dweller along the mountain streams the year around. Its range in the mountains of western North America extends from Yukon in Alaska to Guatemala in Central America.
This bird is a plump, uniformly slate-gray colored water sprite. Its length, from bill to end of tail, is about 7-1/2 inches; wing, about 3-1/2 inches; tail, short and usually carried upward at a rakish angle. The close and compact body feathers of this bird permit it to dive under water and even walk on the bottom of mountain streams in search of insect food. Recent observations have substantiated the fact that, at times, the dipper uses its wings to aid it in its progress under water. Hence this bird may be said to "fly" through the water as well as through the air. The outstanding character of this bird is its exquisite song, poured forth in winter as well as summer.
On June 23, 1933, I spent considerable time watching a pair of dippers that had their nest high up in the forest on the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River in Sequoia National Park. This nest, located in a dark cavity behind a waterfall and composed chiefly of moss, was entirely roofed over, the birds gaining their entrance through the side. This compact cozy home was well protected from invasion by the waterfall, and the spray kept the moss fresh and green.
Aquatic insects, gleaned from under stones and pebbles on the bottom and along the margin of the stream, constituted the chief food of this family. I endeavored to photograph one of the parents while it was feeding along the edge of the stream, with the waterfall in the background. (See illustration.) Since the light was poor and the bird was very dark, a slow exposure was necessary and the flying spray is shown in the foreground as a series of white streaks.
Certain fishermen condemn the dipper, claiming that it destroys prospective fish which they themselves want to catch. It is true that at times dippers have been seen feeding on trout eggs, but it is my belief that such destruction is not excessive. Ornithologists generally agree that this bird should be fully protected, especially since its population is naturally low.
Last Updated: 01-Jul-2010