Snow-covered trees tower above the cold, black waters of a mountain stream. The waters still tumble down the slope even though snow crowds the banks. The summer birds of the high country have long since departed for Mexico. Yet, a small, gray bird with its short tail held high sits midstream on a rock ringed with ice. The bird bobs a few times and then inexplicably plunges into the swirling waters.
A few seconds later it bobs to the surface, drifts downstream and hops up onto another rock. It swallows its prize, a stonefly larva. Now it submerges its head into the rushing water looking for the next morsel. Water flows up over its back, silvering the gray feathers. It dives again. While food is scarce in the forest, life continues without pause in the streams. There is plenty of food here.
The bird is the water ouzel or, as it is more commonly known in our area, the dipper. It is a member of a small family of birds (five species worldwide) that includes the only truly aquatic songbirds.
The dipper looks and acts like a cross between a thrush and a wren and is indeed related to both. Its build, thrush-like bill and rich quality of song hint at its thrush heritage. The upright tail, assertive attitude and unstoppable song betray its allegiance to the wrens.
As a waterbird, the dipper has strong legs and large feet to cling to the bottom of a fast-moving stream. The plumage is dense, insulating the dipper from the frigid water. Most birds have an oil gland at the base of the tail that is used for preening and waterproofing feathers. The oil gland of the dipper is 10 times larger than those of other birds of similar size. It wouldn't do to have near-freezing water reach the skin. A flap-like scale seals the nostrils as it dives.
John Muir had a special affection for this bird, referring to the water ouzel as "the mountain streams' own darling, the hummingbird of blooming waters"…"
Before Europeans arrived in the mountain west, dippers nested behind waterfalls. The domed nest of moss was kept moist and green in the spray zone. Today they are just as happy nesting among the supports of bridges over forest streams.
One of its more curious behaviors is the nearly constant bobbing, giving the bird its name. Visual cues work better than voice when communicating with mates and young amid the noise of a cascading torrent. Still, it doesn't keep them from singing a rich and beautiful song much of the year, with the exception of mid-summer. However, you must be close to the singer if you want to hear the song over the sound of the stream. Watch for the frequent blinking of the eyes. The contrasting white eyelids are another visual cue used for communication.
You don't have to put on snowshoes to see dippers, though it can make an enjoyable outing. An easier way to observe this unique bird is to walk along Ashland Creek in Lithia Park. If even that sounds ambitious, frequent one of the creekside cafes or pubs in downtown Ashland. A pair of dippers considers this stretch of creek its home.
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.