The American Dipper Cinclus_mexicanus
By Sharon Hester
She bobbed up and down, dancing, a small, roundish, grey fluff of a bird. Each movement carefully planned, flying short distances between boulders scattered about the melodious brook. Taking a small calculating step or two with a bob between every step, her perky dance moves were captivating. And then a quick white flash, she winked at me! Was I imagining this? Suddenly it happened again, sparkling like a diamond, a bit of bling contrasting with her plain grey feathers. What a flirt! But alas her winks were not for me. It was only her white feathered eyelids, with each blink as she cleared her eyes to focus, scanning beneath the water’s surface for hidden insects, fish fry. Over the years, I had many more opportunities to observe these fascinating songbirds and the American Dipper (or Ouzel) quickly became one of my favorite birds!
Dippers are the only truly aquatic songbird, having an extra eyelid called a “nictating membrane” which allows them to see underwater, as well as scales that close their nostrils when submerged. Dippers have thicker, oilier feathers and a lower metabolic rate than other songbirds, which helps keep them warmer when seeking food under icy waters. They can swim like a duck, or dive “fly” like a penguin underwater to find food. In the spring in Grand Canyon, they build their nests 6-20 feet above deep pools and often behind waterfalls, to protect the nestlings from predators. Both the male and females have a beautiful varied songs which can be heard year round.
Watch closely when you see a dipper, you might be lucky enough to see them dive into and fly under water, or bob swimming on the surface. You may even see them vigorously tossing pebbles into the air or pulling moss off rocks to look for invertebrates which may be hiding underneath. In the springtime, they spend time teaching their young these amazing skills.
American Dippers can only live near clean unpolluted rivers and streams, so in many North American regions, they have lost habitat due to pollution. Grand Canyon side streams are clean enough to support the healthy insect populations needed for dippers to survive. (However, those same creeks are not clean enough for human consumption).
It would be unusual to see dippers along the river except near the clear side stream confluences. Sit quietly and be still in a place without much activity to observe dippers in the side streams of the Canyon or at their confluences by the river.