The mountain streams of western North America are home to one of the continent’s most amazing animals: American Dippers. At first glace, a dipper is an unremarkable bird: small, plump, and gray. The only strange thing about the bird is where she’s standing: on a rock in raging stream. The dipper takes two steps closer to the rapids, then two more. Now her toes are in the water. Careful little bird! Then, as if an act of suicide, she throws herself headfirst into the raging water.
Your heart sinks, or perhaps you just shrug and think to yourself, “Natural selection.” But just as you’re about to turn away, the dipper pops out of the whitewater as easily as she jumped in. She lands on the rock, proudly holding an insect in her beak and happily bobbing up and down. Before you can pick your jaw up off the ground, she’s back in and out of the water, her beak steadily filling with more insects, their legs still squirming.
Yes, this is a real bird, and yes, they live right here in Bozeman, Montana. I’ve gotten the feeling that not many people know about dippers, so I spent two days filming them. I’m happy to share with you the first of a two-part video on these incredible animals:
Last June I crossed Pine Creek while on a hike. Knowing that I was in dipper habitat, I eagerly looked around, hoping to spot one. Sure enough, there was the little gray bird jumping into whitewater! Even more exciting, she and her mate were carrying food to a nest! I vowed to return with camera gear to film this amazing behavior.
Two weeks later I was sitting on the edge of the water with my tripod and camera. I spent about six hours filming and photographing the nest-feeding process form different angles. The adults would spend about 2-5 minutes filling their beaks with invertebrates before stuffing them into the mouth of one of their screaming chicks in their soft, mossy nest. After each feeding, the adult would wait for one of the chicks to stick out its rear and defecate. The adult would snatch the fecal sac, fly back to the creek, place it in the water, and then rinse out his or her beak. Each adult would only spend about 10 minutes foraging in a given section of the creek before moving to another. Every couple of hours, one of the adults would take a 20 minute break to rest and preen, although it seemed that one of the adults was taking many more breaks than the other. Time passed quickly as I watched and filmed this routine, and the creek only claimed the life of one of my cameras! This is why I carry a spare.
During that time more than 100 hikers probably walked by me. I was amazed that not a single one noticed the dippers just feet away from them, even with me pointing a large white lens directly at them. People just didn’t spend more than a second looking at the gorgeous stream, and if they did it was almost always with a camera’s screen in front of their face. Everyone is entitled to enjoy nature however they want, but I do think that knowing and appreciating the small species that live in it would lead to better conservation. Plus, dippers are amazing and everyone in the West should have the opportunity to marvel at them! To promote dipper awareness, I encourage you to share this video with your friends.
The next weekend I returned to Pine Creek to see if any of the chicks had fledged. Stay tuned for another video!