First, the varied thrushes are back, swamp robins singing in the rain. Sounds like my telephone is ringing. The water dippers are back too — I mean, they are back up the creek from spending winter in the valley.
To the left of the sink was a stainless steel water bucket often filled, nearly to the brim, with cool, clear water for farmhouse drinking. Floating in the water, with a long handle resting on the brim of the pail, was a dipper, a genuine water dipper. Now, if I was minding my manners, I would grip the handle and tip the dipper into the water, letting the water flow gently into it on one side, until it was full. Otherwise, on occasion, I would quickly push the dipper straight down into the water and watch the water gush in from all sides and then collide in its center to send some water shooting straight up into the air. Recalling all that, reminds me of the times I have watched a Canadian dipper (or is it an American dipper?) plunge into creek water, sending water over its back from all sides and up into a bit of a geyser as it disappears below the surface.
They stand on a protruding rock above the flowing creek water, looking this way and that while bobbing up and down. I am not sure, but they might be waiting for the right time to dive, like waiting for the right wind to come along. Neither am I sure of how much they can see while underwater or out of water in the way of food, but they do find insects in various stages, as well as snails and worms to feed themselves and their young sheltered in an often misty, mountain creekside nest. Another little feature of water dippers is a whitish eyelid that keeps “flashing” as it flicks over the eye and back.
On Feb. 26, while having lunch on some snow-covered creek rocks, we weren’t hearing any birds except for a few solitary chickadees and perhaps golden crowned kinglets. Then, something dark whizzed by us uttering this sharp, staccato call. This totally unexpected water dipper descended into a creek opening as quickly as it had appeared from an opening just a few feet upstream. With three or four feet of snow still covering much of the creek and the creek boulders, one would hardly expect to see this seldom seen bird in the creek at an elevation of 4,310 feet, except in summer.
Water dippers are very much at home around our mountain creeks. They don’t know any other habitat except perhaps some rocky lakeshore or ocean shoreline. They are so familiar with life in and around a mountain creek that it wouldn’t surprise me if the water dipper that whizzed by didn’t also take a “polar bear” swim under the snow and ice from one creek opening to another. In summer, they swim or swim-walk underwater all the time with the current, from one rock perch to another rock or to shallow water, foraging for food as they go. I have noticed that, except where the water isn’t so swift, they don’t usually dive into an open current but will jump in on the lee side of a rock where there is a back current or a bit of calm. Sometimes I have seen them jump into swift water, bobbing along in the water to another rock perch or forage area.
If it isn’t already, make the dipper one of your favourite birds by starting out your spring bird-watching expeditions with a search for the elusive American dipper. Great places to spot them can be Summit Creek at the valley bottom or, as the snow recedes, farther upstream in Summit Creek right to and including Bridal Lake.
Does the creek life of a dipper sound like “dip”-a-dee-doo-dah? It may not. Life in a creek is as normal for a dipper as your back yard is for a robin.
Ed McMackin is a biologist by profession but a naturalist and hiker by nature. He can be reached at 250-866-5747.