American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus)
We have come to the middle of winter. Most songbirds disappeared months ago to warmer places like Arizona or Costa Rica. A few songbird species tough it out and stay the winter – and of those that do, one of the most bizarre is the American Dipper.
For the average person, songbirds typically call to mind images of bright feathers and melodious songs (longest and loudest when the sun rises earliest and you are trying to sleep in). Mostly land loving songbirds live in a wide range of forest, grassland, and marsh habitats. The American Dipper is unique in the songbird world as it spends its lifetime (6-8 years) in mountain rivers and streams, the only truly aquatic songbird.
Dippers are the adventurous thrill-seekers of the songbird world. They feed in fast-flowing mountain rivers and streams, diving in and out of pools, braving waves, waterfalls and whitewater. Often where currents are too fast or too deep for a human to stand you find these tough little songbirds diving in and out of the water as they "fly" submerged on the streambed looking for insects.
Dippers are small (up to 19 cm) but their bodies are made to order for life in the fast stream. A third eyelid, called a nictating membrane, protects the bird’s eye and lets the dipper see its underwater prey. To stay warm and dry, dippers have an organ called a preen gland that produces a waterproofing oil. Dippers preen the oil onto their dense feathers during daily grooming sessions. Dippers can even "plug" their noses for underwater swims with a moveable nostril flap – not even ducks can do THAT.
Now that winter is here in southwestern B.C., dippers have descended from higher elevations to open creeks or rivers in the valley bottoms. Check any of the streams in the Whistler area and you will likely see this little charcoal-grey bird. True to their name, dippers are easy to identify by their odd habit of bobbing (or dipping) up and down, and by their stubby upturned tail. During the Christmas Bird Count more than 10 dippers were counted in a 100 metre stretch at the Calcheak footbridge, so if you are seeking them out that’s a good place to start. And while you are looking, keep your ears open for my other winter songbird favourite, the Brown Creeper. Happy birding!
Upcoming Events :
January 27 — Live Owls and Hawks. The Whistler Naturalists presents "Owls in The Classroom." Ted Williams from Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society (OWL) is bringing a Barred Owl along with several other raptors. This kid-friendly event is in the Toad Hall room at Myrtle Phillip Community School from 11 a.m. until about 1 p.m. Children under 12 free. Adults $2 (members), $6 (non-members).
February 3 — Monthly Bird Walk . Meet at the base of Lorimer Road at 8 a.m.
Website of the Week: For a great link to birds in Canada and elsewhere, including a search engine for other sites, check out Bird Studies Canada (www.bsc-eoc.org/bscmain.html).
Written by: Cathy Conroy