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River Dipper

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I used to have a river-friend on the Tolt River out close to Carnation, Wa.  For a long while, this run on the river was a favorite steelhead haunt of mine.  It was close to my home in Woodinville.  I could get there when I only had a few hours to fish.  I usually saw my friend when I was least ready.  That is the reason I have no pictures of him (check out http://vireo.acnatsci.org and search for American Dipper).  I wished I had the patience to photograph this bird, but it is usually a low light situation and I simply haven’t figured out how to get that perfect shot.  After all, I am steelheading when it occurs.  If I see the bird, I can quit fishing to watch it, but it is still too hard for me to not fish and just wait for the Dipper to appear.  It was fairly early one fall morning when we first met. 

The small bird was on the other side of the river in the shadows right at the water’s edge.  At first, I didn’t notice him that much (I really didn’t know if it was male or female, but I’ll just make him a male).  He was just a movement among the rocks in inches-deep water.  When I started to pay attention to him, he was there; then he wasn’t.  Gone. Then, he would reappear rising up out of the river just a little upstream of where I lost sight of him.  I had never heard of the American Dipper (or Water Ouzel) and had no idea that a smallish bird of about 7 or 8 inches could disappear underwater for a short while; for what?  It had to be for food.  I was fascinated.  I kind of forgot about the steelhead fishing and just watched the dipper.  Returning to the same run many times to fish in the weeks and years ahead, I started to think of the over-all grey-feathered bird with long legs and a short tail as a friend.  It was always reassuring to see him.  I thought of naming him Jack, but…. Jack the dipper seemed a little too much, so I never gave him a name.  They (Dippers) are perfect river indicators.  They require clean, insect-loaded streams and will stay in their home waters until something (pollution, erosion etc) clears them out.  I haven’t been back to the Tolt in over 30 years.  The Water Ouzel (my friend) was there the last time I fished the river.  I am hoping there have been several succeeding breeding pairs since my last visit and the Tolt is still providing a comfortable, safe home for them.

After that first encounter, I researched the bird that I had witnessed dipping and bobbing and diving and swimming along the river’s edge.  I found out: that they favor the same rivers that attract steelhead and salmon (that says a lot about their character); can actually swim underwater using their wings searching for aquatic insects; the uncommon bobbing of their whole bodies up and down and dipping their heads underwater and popping back up seconds later; they have the ability to store extra oxygen in their blood to stay underwater; they have a protective clear lens that covers their eyelids underwater to give them sight while hunting for food and they have a thick covering of waterproof feathers to protect them in freezing water temps. 

Remarkable qualities to be wrapped into such a small, feathered package.  They also have white eyelids so when they blink you see this white flashing.  Unusual… almost alarming.  Before my hearing went south on me, I enjoyed hearing my friend’s song dancing over the white water on the Tolt between us (check out http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/american_dipper/sounds ).  I can no longer hear them, these days but I can still remember the pleasure it brought me.

Their nests are found along the river banks on steep sided boulders or cliffs that have an appropriate ledge to put a somewhat large, double sided (to provide insulation and moisture protection) moss, twig and bark nest.  They can also be found behind waterfalls or under bridges, but always close to a river.  They will keep the same nesting sites as long as they possess the same original properties to provide a safe place to build a home.

I imagine that they can in-turn, become prey with, maybe, large bull trout found in some of their home waters.  I am wondering if they launch themselves up out of the water into flight to escape a predator??  I can also think that even a small amount of discarded mono could ensnare an unsuspecting Water Ouzel.  That would be a slow, certain death for it. Too awful to think about.  Another good reason to pick up any mono that one finds while fishing.

It always makes me smile when I see an Ouzel.  I have observed them within a rod’s length and watched them walk underwater acting the predator searching out caddis larvae, mayfly nymphs, damsels and any sort of smallish prey.  I cannot fish when they are around.  I devote all of my attention to watching their antics.  Although I know more about them, now, the American Dipper still demands the same attraction as the first one I noticed.  The American Dipper is a native of the western states from Alaska to California and Mexico.  I don’t know if the eastern states have a bird with similar habits and as much character.  I certainly hope so.  Otherwise, I would suggest that anglers in the eastern side of our country make plans to fish steelhead and/or salmon in the west, if no other reason than to possibly witness our special river-friends plus the potential addition of a privileged steelhead/salmon pull.  It is worth the trip. 

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