Bird and stream are inseparable, songful and wild, gentle and strong – the bird [water ouzel], ever in danger in the midst of the stream’s mad whirlpools, yet seemingly immortal.
I want to share one more highlight from our Colorado trip this past October. The trip was filled with beautiful places, great hikes, amazing campsites, and surprises at almost every turn. But this hike, this place, and this encounter with a magical bird, stands out for me – and so, I give you an ode to the ouzel (water ouzel, that is).
The view from our campsite on a calm evening after a very windy previous night along East Inlet (click photos to enlarge)
After a few days on the east side of the park, we headed toward Grand Lake and a short backpack recommended by a ranger. We hiked in on the East Inlet Trail a little over 1.5 miles to a wonderful tree-covered site perched on a slight rise above the river and surrounding marshland. There was only one problem…the wind was howling a steady 25+ mph and was predicted to remain that way through the next morning. The young conifers were swaying noisily above the tent site, giving us pause about pitching our tent. We looked around and saw a flattened site down in the marsh where someone had obviously pitched a tent. We discussed the pros and cons of camping a little distance from the site marker, when a tree came crashing down nearby. That settled it, we were not going to sleep under the trees that night, and we would just have to explain ourselves if questioned. After setting up our camp, we were sitting looking at the incredible view when Melissa heard the bubbling call of an American Dipper, one of our favorite Western birds. Soon, the little dynamo flew closer and started hunting. Their normal food is aquatic insects, but this guy soon came up with a small fish, then another, and another! We had never seen one catch fish in all our years of watching dippers in Yellowstone, so this was something I really wanted to photograph. Only problem was I had left my telephoto in the car since we were backpacking. So, the next morning I decided to hike back out and retrieve my camera gear while Melissa explored farther up the trail. It was definitely worth it (after waiting a few hours for the dipper’s hoped-for return).
The next morning, I hiked out for my camera and telephoto lens, hoping to capture some images of the dipper. After waiting and watching a couple of hours, the dipper returned.
Dippers frequently stick their heads underwater, looking for prey.
Dippers have tiny white feathers on their eyelids, which flash a brilliant white when they blink. This may serve as a visual signal and territorial display to other nearby dippers. The persistent dipping behavior may be another way of communicating to other dippers in an environment so noisy that the usual songs may not be sufficient.
Dippers are the only truly aquatic songbird. At first glance to an easterner, they look like a squat, truncated gray catbird. But their habits and habitat quickly distinguish them from any familiar Eastern birds. They are almost always found in the company of fast-flowing waters where they forage by plunging into the rapids and literally swim underwater in search of prey. Their eyes are able to adapt quickly to vision both above and under the water due to highly developed iris muscles. They also have a low metabolic rate, extra oxygen-carrying capabilities in their blood, and a dense covering of feathers, all of which give them an advantage in their harsh environment.
Another hunting technique is to swim in swift water, head down, searching for food.
The dipper managed to catch several fish while I tried to photograph this feat, but it always swam away from me and swallowed its finny meal far across the river.
Finally, the dipper came up on a rock not far away and beat the fish a few times before gulping it down.
Between bouts of fishing, the dipper took long breaks to preen…
…and preen some more. This is an essential behavior for all birds, but especially one that spends its days diving in ice cold mountain streams.
After spending several hours watching and photographing one bird, another dipper flew in and this made for a frenetic feeding time with both Melissa and I trying to anticipate which was bird was going to catch something and where they would be when it happened. There was some squabbling but they both seemed intent on catching the seemingly endless supply of fish, so they shared the riffle area adjacent to our tent until late in the day.
At long last, a dipper caught a fish and flew toward me, pausing on a rock in perfect view.
We lost count of how many fish these two captured, but they were quite efficient (and very fast swimmers when pursuing their prey). If anyone can identify the species of fish (I assume these are fingerling trout of some sort), I would greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts.
Then, it flew even closer before swallowing the final meal of the evening.
The light was fading fast but the birds had provided what I had hoped for, some great views of a species that is incredibly adapted to its unique habitat of rushing waters and boulders (and a few decent pics). As darkness fell, both birds flew off downstream beyond our view. But the next morning they had a special treat for us. As the light started pouring over the marsh, we heard scratching on our tent. Melissa looked up and there was a pair of feet – bird’s feet, struggling to get a grip on the sloping top of our tent. We looked out and there was a dipper on a boulder along the shore….and there was still one on our tent! Before jumping off, the first bird deposited its calling card! Then the next dipper flew up, scratching on the surface and leaving a “gift” for us as well. The other dipper returned and they both danced around before leaving us for good. Our tent is a gray dome, which I suppose looks like a big boulder alongside the river. Were they communicating with each other on the biggest “rock” on the shoreline? Or telling us they wanted to hunt for food some more and we should leave (or maybe get ready to take more photos)? Whatever the meaning, it was magical (and a fitting and funny way to end our stay).
A great way to wake up in the wilderness – with dippers dancing on your tent.
The connection with these two dippers was transformative. It is exactly this type of experience I seek and want to share with others – to witness wild creatures in their element, living their wild lives, but granting us moments of oneness, of peace with wild things. I will end this tribute to my favorite Western bird with the next lines from the John Muir quote that started this post…And so I might go on, writing words, words, words; but to what purpose? Go see him and love him, and through him as through a window look into Nature’s warm heart.
A dipper admiring its reflection and rightly so…these are amazing birds living in an incredible place.