Hidden in Plain Sight

Hidden in Plain Sight: Western Sceech Owl Courtesy & Copyright Lou Giddings
Western Sceech Owl
Courtesy & Copyright Lou Giddings

My wife and I paddled our kayak gingerly into the eaves of a limestone cliff, our eyes scanning its face for some sort of concavity or movement where there was none. “I don’t see where she could possibly be,” my wife confessed. She was right. We knew we had found the right rock, soiled as it was with bird refuse, but there was nowhere for the nest to lie it seemed. Just then, on cue, a stirring of movement. Dark triangles rose out of the rock, followed by the lemony-yellow eyes of a mother Western Screech Owl. She climbed slowly from her grotto before exploding out of the rock toward us. A flurry of feathers rocketed toward us. I’m pretty sure I screamed, ducked as the bird soared away over our heads. We backed off a little. Concerned about the integrity of the nest site and our own well-being, we didn’t want to venture too close. When we were finally far enough away for mother’s comfort, she leap-frogged her way back to the cliff-side and disappeared again into the rock.

It’s a wonder she was there at all! Inconspicuous as it is, her placement is nevertheless adjacent to a highly frequented recreational reservoir. As we watched her descend back into her incubation chamber, country music blared from the opposite shore and the joyous yelps of our fellow boaters rang out through the air. To be sure, this wasn’t the first time she had been stirred from her nest; but she must have somehow grown accustomed to human sights and sounds. Otherwise, she wouldn’t choose this same nesting site year after year, as I’d heard she does. My wife and I marveled at her bravery in defying what seemed a too-close proximity to our louder, more aggressively curious species; but the more I thought about it, the peculiarity of her choice faded. This was not the first intimate space we had discovered this spring.

Hidden in Plain Sight: American Dipper Peter Hart, Photographer Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
American Dipper
Peter Hart, Photographer
Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
A couple weeks earlier, as we sat at swift water’s edge, a small charcoal feather-bundle fell out of the sky toward the water near the opposite bank. A Water Ouzel—otherwise known as the American Dipper—had just lit upon a boulder where it commenced its famous bouncing. At once, it lunged at the riffles of water at its feet, torpedoing itself toward whatever invertebrate morsel was to be found in early spring. Having fetched what it was after, the dipper surfaced into full flight. I thought it would have returned to the rock; but instead, it swept itself into the girders of the small bridge spanning the river.

American Dipper Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
American Dipper
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
I waited for what I thought was a polite enough amount of time before investigating the scene. As I peered into the dim shadows beneath the bridge, my eyes adjusted to two others blinking back at me from the rounded doorway of a mossy, gourd-like dipper nest. “Why here?” I wondered aloud. The bird had taken offense to the question and took its immediate leave of my presence. This was the second dipper nest I’d found within a few miles’ stretch of river—the mark of a healthy and robust riparian zone, and perhaps also indicative of a healthy human/nature relationship. The other, too, neighbored a well-travelled recreational space.

It seems heroic at first glance, the wild ones enduring our somewhat rude domesticity; but perhaps it’s a complement. They’re comfortable enough to hide in plain sight.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US FWS
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Western Screech Owl (images & sounds), AllAboutBirds.org, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Western_Screech-Owl/

American Dipper (images & sounds), AllAboutBirds.org, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Dipper/sounds

Why Dippers Dip

American Dipper Ashley Tubbs, Photographer Photo credit: ashleytisme via Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND
American Dipper
Ashley Tubbs, Photographer
Photo credit: ashleytisme via Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND
Cinclus mexicanus is the only aquatic songbird found in North America, but it goes by several names—the American dipper, the water dipper, or the water ouzel. It is a grapefruit-sized bird that inhabits mountainous riparian areas. It has brownish gray plumage, stubby wings and tail, and ornithologists sometimes refer to it as “stocky,” “chunky,” and even “chubby-looking.” However, the dipper has no shortage of energy, and can be seen careening at low altitudes over mountain streambeds and crashing beak-first into fast-flowing water, always in the upstream direction.

American Dipper Peter Hart, Photographer Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
American Dipper
Peter Hart, Photographer
Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
The dipper hunts for food by diving into swift, shallow rivers and hunting underwater. It muscles its way upstream, picking off aquatic insect larva, crayfish, and even tadpoles and minnows. Several adaptations assist the dipper in this seemingly reckless feeding strategy. Nictitating eye membranes enable the dipper to see underwater, and specialized flaps of skin on the dipper’s beak seal its nostrils. Dippers produce more feather oil than less adventuresome songbirds, which keeps them warm and dry, even in near-freezing water. Perhaps most noticeably, the dipper has long legs and specialized, unwebbed toes to grip the stream bottom, hold steady in the current, and push along upstream.

The American dipper was once more commonly referred to as the “water ouzel,” after its European cousin, Cinclus aquaticus, but ornithologists changed the preferred common name to “American dipper” to better distinguish it based on a unique aspect of the bird’s behavior: American dippers dip.

American Dipper Peter Hart, Photographer Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
American Dipper
Peter Hart, Photographer
Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
The dipper bobs rapidly up and down by bending its legs—like deep knee bends. Dippers dip while paused on rocks between dives, they dip while feeding in the water, and they even dip while they’re still fledging in their nests.

So, why do dippers dip? There are a number of theories. First, dipping may help the birds visually isolate reference points beneath moving water, so that they can more accurately dive for prey. Dipping might also help to conceal dippers from predators against a busily moving backdrop. But the best theory about dipping is that it’s a form of communication between dippers within the noisy environment of mountain streams.

Ornithologists say dippers dip at different rates in different situations, sometimes as rapidly as 60 times per minute. Dipping could be used to convey messages such as “Go away, this is my territory,” or “Hi, I would like to mate with you.”

Unlike other songbirds of the United States, the dipper does not migrate to warmer climes in autumn—it stays put all year, usually moving only short distances to avoid iced-over streams or to take advantage of shifting forage availability.

Like the American dipper, I too am a year-round denizen of mountain streams. I enjoy fly-fishing all year, even when it’s very cold, and aside from trout, the dipper is the creature I most enjoy seeing while I’m fishing. I figure that if a 6-ounce bird with feathers and bare legs can brave summer’s roasting heat and winter’s bitter chill, then so can I. But more importantly, the American dipper is known as a “biotic indicator species,” meaning this bird is known to thrive in streams with clean water and robust forage, while it abandons streams which are impaired or polluted. So, when I see American dippers dipping and diving in my home waters, I know I’m fishing in a river system that is healthy and strong.

For Wild About Utah this is Chadd VanZanten.

Credits:
Photo credit #1: ashleytisme via Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND
Photo credit #2 and #3: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
Text: Chadd VanZanten

Additional Reading:

The Water Ouzel from The Mountains of California as quoted in The Wilderness World of John Muir, http://www.amazon.com/Wilderness-World-John-Muir/dp/0618127518/ref=sr_1_1?

American Dipper-Cinclus mexicanus, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=cincmexi

A Bird for All Seasons, The American Dipper, Norm Davis as read by Linda Kervin, Wild About Utah, Apr 21, 2009, http://wildaboututah.org/a-bird-for-all-seasons-the-american-dipper/

A Bird for All Seasons, The American Dipper

American Dipper or Cinclus mexicanus
Courtesy: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Dave Menke, Photographer

You are walking along side a swiftly-flowing mountain stream when you notice a slate-gray bird, tail cocked up jauntily like a wren’s, but a bird of a size nearer to that of a robin or large thrush. He is doing continual knee bends: bobbing up and down unceasingly. He (or is it she?) is perched on a rock drenched with spray from rapids. Your attention is arrested.

Suddenly the bird plunges into the foaming water as it rushes over rocks. Surely you will next see it (if at all) a bedraggled wreck surfacing way down stream, swept along to destruction by the raging torrent.

American Dipper by a stream
Courtesy: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Dave Menke, Photographer

But no, he surfaces in a bit of calm water between rapids and swims nonchalantly to shore where he goes back to his bobbing routine, singing joyously all the while. What is this phenomenon you have stumbled upon?

You page through your field guide. Ah, here he is, the American dipper, also sometimes called a water ouzel. Yep, the bobbing is mentioned, along with the likelihood of his being found near rapidly flowing mountain streams in the American West. You also learn that he swims––no web feet but he swims––and better under water than on the surface, his wings assisting.

This bird was born almost literally of these waters. His parents built a mossy nest on a ledge of rock in the spray of the stream. His mother laid eggs looking like bubbles of foam. From one of these he emerged like Venus coming forth out of the sea.

American Dipper Nest
Courtesy: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

He never strays far from these waters and seems impervious to the vicissitudes of weather––undaunted by snow and ice (after all his habitat flows too swiftly to freeze in the coldest weather), undeterred by heat (he has continual mist and frequent bathing to keep him cool).

So, the next time you are out––in summer’s heat or snowshoeing in coldest winter––keep an eye out for a nondescript little bird bobbing on a slippery or ice-coated rock beside a fast-moving mountain stream. You can report that you have sighted an American dipper.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
http://digitalrepository.fws.gov/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/natdiglib&CISOPTR=5349&CISOBOX=1&REC=5

Audio: Courtesy and Copyright 2008 Dr. Kevin Colver, Songbirds of Yellowstone, http://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/

Text: Norman Davis, with thanks to Dorothy Egan, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

The Water Ouzel from The Mountains of California as quoted in The Wilderness World of John Muir, http://www.amazon.com/Wilderness-World-John-Muir/dp/0618127518/ref=sr_1_1?

American Dipper-Cinclus mexicanus, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=cincmexi