I can’t recall exactly when I first heard an American dipper sing, but I do remember the place: McHugh Creek, not far below Chugach State Park’s Turnagain Arm Trail. And I remember my amazement, when I heard the bird’s voice.
I’m not exactly sure why I was so astounded. I’d been told that dippers are beautiful singers. But I wasn’t prepared for the marvelous, extended series of whistles, trills, and buzzes, nor how loudly and clearly those notes would rise above the creek’s rushing waters. Descriptions of the dipper’s song that I’ve found since then range from melodious to cheerful and enchanting. I’d say all are true.
The most famous description of the dipper’s song was provided by the renowned wilderness adventurer and advocate John Muir, in an essay titled, “The Water Ouzel” (which was the name once given to dippers).
Muir’s musings about that song are lengthy, so I’ll only quote him in part: “Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings—none so unfailingly. For both in winter and summer he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells. While water sings, so must he . . . his mellow, fluty voice is ever tuned to downright gladness.”
Though Muir uses the male pronoun, Robert Armstrong’s “Guide to the Birds of Alaska” (among other references) points out that both sexes sing, uncommon among songbirds.
But this is an uncommon bird in many ways.
I was reminded of the bird’s beautiful song when Jan and I encountered one during our Anchorage Christmas Bird Count trek in mid-December. We’d been wandering the Chugach foothills for much of the day, with little to show (or hear) for our effort. In fact we hadn’t seen or heard a bird for hours, likely because most were hunkered down in the day’s heavy snowfall.
Our route back to the Prospect Heights trailhead took us past a stretch of Campbell Creek’s South Fork. We’d spotted a dipper along the creek during the previous year’s CBC, so I decided to check carefully along its banks, just in case. My first search came up empty. But a couple of hundred yards upstream, where the creek again bent near the path we walked, I spotted a dipper. He—or she? —stood upon a snow bank right above the creek, the dark gray form bobbing up and down as members of the species do (thus the name), the body about the size of a hermit thrush, but considerably plumper in appearance.
“Jan,” I shouted, “come over here!. There’s a dipper! Quick, before he flies away!”
By the time my girlfriend joined me, the dipper had fluttered to the opposite shore, stepped into the shallows, and began dunking his head into the frigid waters, looking for the aquatic insects essential to the bird’s survival.
As I wrote in my account of our Christmas count effort: how marvelous was that, to find a dipper nonchalantly hunting for a meal on such a stormy day, when nearly all the other forest birds had gone into hiding?
Muir wouldn’t have been surprised a bit. While walking among groves of trees in Yosemite Valley one stormy winter day, he noted that “every snow-bound bird seemed more or less uncomfortable, if not in positive distress. . . . their cowering, joyless endurance offering a striking contrast to the spontaneous, irrepressible gladness of the ouzel (which he had encountered earlier), who could no more help exhaling sweet song than a rose sweet fragrance. He must sing, though the heavens fall.”
The dipper we encountered on Dec. 19 didn’t sing. But his repeated matter-of-fact dunking into chilling waters impressed us greatly. And it was that, I think, which somehow reminded me of the bird’s singing, which as Muir and Armstrong and other naturalists note, occurs throughout the year—another uncommon behavior.
And then there’s this: not only does the dipper routinely dunk his head while hunting food, he (or she) often walks along the stream bottom, body completely immersed in water. And if that isn’t working, a dipper may actually fly underwater. Now isn’t that an amazing feat for a songbird?
Have I mentioned that the American dipper is our continent’s only aquatic songbird? So in a very real sense, the species is more than uncommon, it’s unique among North American birds.
Here’s some more amazing food for thought to digest: As Alaska science writer Ned Rozell once reported, the geographic range of dippers extends deep into the Arctic, as far north as the Brooks Range. It might extend even farther north, except that dippers greatly prefer mountain streams to those in lowlands. Here’s more Rozell: “On the upper Chena River in the heart of a cold winter, a songbird appeared on a gravel bar next to gurgling water that somehow remained unfrozen in 20-below zero air. Then the bird jumped in, disappeared under water, and popped up a few feet upstream.
“The bird continued snorkeling and diving under the current of the stream, which is so far north that in December direct sunlight never touches it . . .
“It seemed crazy behavior for a cold winter day, but swimming is how American dippers make their living, even here in Alaska.”
A researcher whom Rozell interviewed for his article, Mary Willson, attributed dippers’ tolerance to frigid water and even colder air to a couple of things: first, they have extremely dense plumage; and near the base of their tails, they have large oil glands. By dipping their beaks into those glands and then wiping the oil on their feathers, they essentially make themselves waterproof. And how cool is that?
I’ll share one more odd—some might say remarkable—thing about dippers here and save other good stuff for another time. Those who watch dippers closely may notice that an occasional flash of white crosses their eyes. As birding expert and guidebook author (and illustrator) David Sibley has noted, “This is so different from any other bird that it begs for an explanation.”
To summarize his explanation, dippers have white, feathered eyelids. (Which when the bird isn’t blinking, is marked by a line of tiny white feathers above the eye.) When the bird blinks, that white eyelid flashes white across the eye, and people notice. “They don’t blink a lot more than other birds,” Sibley explains, “it’s just that most other birds have dark grayish eyelids without feathers and blink more quickly, so their blinking is barely noticeable.”
Why have dippers evolved such eyelids? That’s among the many things we don’t know about these common yet extraordinary birds.
I should probably add this: Though common, dippers aren’t especially abundant. You have to look—or listen—carefully to find one, unless you have the good fortune to stumble upon the bird. The next time you’re walking along a fast-moving mountain stream, you might look for a gray, bobbing form, standing on a boulder or snow bank, and if you’re lucky you’ll see the bird dive into that stream. Or hear her—or him—sing a marvelously sweet song.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.