An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter of May 8, 2005

issued from California's Sierra Nevada Foothills

CANYON DIPPER

Friday I celebrated the end of two days of chilly drizzle by making an hour-long hike down to the bottom of the canyon, all the way to the river. What a pleasure lying on the smoothly abraded granite boulders at the water's edge, soaking up the sun, the high cliffs all around rising to a sky as dramatic with its clouds as the cliffs themselves. There's lots of white water there but the river is too full of boulders for canoeing and too cold for swimming.

When I'm in such an environment I always look for a special bird, and on Friday I saw him, perched atop a small boulder in midstream. One reason he's such a treat to see is that his habitat preference is so particular -- he needs cold, swift, permanent streams that remain unfrozen during winter, though also occasionally he's also found along lakeshores. He's a fairly common species in western North America but absent in the East. I'm referring to the Dipper, sometimes known as the Water Ouzel, CINCLUS MEXICANUS. You can see one at http://home.earthlink.net/~nicky- davis/h_dpr_amjuv9603.html

I'll never forget the first time I saw a Dipper, in 1984, in Oregon. He was perched on a small rock in midstream exactly like the one I saw Friday. Also like the one on Friday, the Oregon Dipper astonished me by simply hopping into the water and disappearing.

Of course I was used to ducks, grebes, loons and the like diving underwater, but this bird was different. He was a short-tailed songbird with no webbing on his feet, and a bill like a wren's. Moreover, that day in Oregon when I climbed onto a boulder for a better view, what I saw was hard to believe. There the little critter was walking beneath the water, just like a chicken, pecking here and there.

From what I could see, he also flew beneath the water. In fact, he didn't seem to notice or care whether he was above or below water. He was as adapted to the interface between air and water as an otter. Dippers even like to place their nests where they are moistened by spray -- behind waterfalls, for example.

If you were asked to design a bird who effortlessly could occupy the interface between sky and water, I'll bet you'd come up with something like a sleek swallow or a rainbow colored macaw. That's not what Mother Nature produced, however. Dippers are dumpy- looking little birds, all dark gray with very awkward looking, large, yellow feet.

Maybe that's the reason I like them so much, feel so brotherly toward them, and somehow find in them some hope for my own spraddle-toed existence.