Editor’s note: This column previously appeared in the Clarion on Dec. 27, 2002.
The other day, I got to thinking about the birds that stay on the Kenai Peninsula all winter, the true residents of Alaska. The ones that flew to mind included jays, ravens, eagles, grouse, redpolls, magpies, nuthatches, chickadees and mergansers. But upon further thought, I remembered one of the most interesting birds of all: the American dipper.
The American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) is the world’s only truly aquatic songbird. Sometimes called the “water ouzel,” it can swim underwater with its short wings and “land” on the bottom. Strong toes give the dipper the ability to walk along the bottom of fast-moving streams, where it probes with its beak under stones for aquatic insect larvae, fish eggs and even small fish. Nasal flaps prevent water from entering the dipper’s nostrils when it dives. Large preen glands store oil for waterproofing its feathers. Translucent eyelids help it to see underwater.
Worldwide, there are five species of dippers, but the American dipper is the only one that lives in North America. Its range runs from Panama through the western United States, the western Canadian provinces and most of Alaska.
The dipper gets its name from its habit of bending and straightening its knees, making its entire body move up and down. If you can picture a stub-tailed, slate-gray bird about 7 1/2 inches long with a body that bobbles like a bobble-head doll, that’s a dipper.
Like many humans who don’t migrate to southern climes in winter, the dipper prefers cool weather. Its unusually dense plumage and heavy coat of down allow it to remain here all year, even on the North Slope. Air temperatures of more than 97 degrees (F.) are fatal to this bird.
Scientific studies have shown that dippers are good indicators of healthy streams. If the water isn’t clean, it won’t harbor enough aquatic insects to maintain a breeding population of dippers. What’s more, dippers need clear water in order to see and catch their underwater prey.
Dippers spend almost their whole lives on small, clear streams, and are rarely seen away from water. Even when flying, they will follow the course of their home stream, zigzagging at low altitude. In winter, they require open water, and occasionally will leave their territories to find it. I’ve seen them along the Kenai River in the Sterling area in mid-winter.
Another unusual thing about American dippers is their nesting habits. Their natural preference of nesting sites is rock ledges along rushing streams. A little spray apparently doesn’t bother them, as they will sometimes nest behind waterfalls. On the other hand, they aren’t adverse to building nests under bridges.
The outer shell of a soccer-ball-size dipper nest consists mainly of moss, with grass and roots interwoven to hold it together. The inner cup is dry, coarse grass. The birds come and go through a small hole in the side that faces the water. Nests are used repeatedly by the same birds. In Europe, dippers used one nest continuously for more than 100 years.
The American dipper is highly territorial. Like other songbirds, it stakes out its territory by singing, even in winter. According to the Department of Fish and Game’s “Wildlife Notebook Series,” “The dipper’s song is very melodious and sounds like a long rendition of some of the best notes of thrushes and wrens.” Its alarm call is a harsh “zeet.”
Two years ago, the American dipper appeared on the 33-cent U.S. postage stamp. For photos of dippers in action, run a Google search on the Internet. You can tell this is a “fun” bird to watch, by all the photos that are out there. At one site (www.enature.com), you can listen to a dipper’s song. On YouTube, you can watch one walking on the bottom of a stream.
This winter, try to spot one of these interesting birds. They’re not as common as chickadees, but they’re out there.
Happy New Year!
Les Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.