The Destroyer of Caddisflies

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ve heard my dipper schpiel before. In short, American Dippers are one of the coolest birds in North America. Why? Because these gray little songbirds plunge into mountain streams to hunt aquatic insect larvae. So what more can I tell and show you about dippers? Well, I just had an experience with dippers that gave me more inspiration.

Last fall I encountered a very friendly dipper near the mouth of the Poudre Canyon. Because dippers migrate to lower elevations to spend the winter, I returned to that spot last March in the hopes of revisiting that dipper.

Lo and behold, she was still there, or at least one that was just as friendly. There was still snow lining the banks of the stream, but as you can see, that doesn’t stop these birds. I spent about an hour fixated upon the bird, watching her catch insect after insect with ease and wondering how there could still be any left after this little hunter had terrorized them for months.

During this time I noticed a pretty neat behavior. A major food source for dippers is caddisfly larvae, which build protective cases around their bodies out of debris in the stream. Apparently, dippers aren’t fans of digesting sand and pebbles, because the dipper I watched repeatedly extracted the caddisflies from their casings. After plucking one from the stream, she would place it on a rock, grab it by its exposed head, and fling the casing off its body with a few quick flicks of her head. Here’s my best attempt at documenting that:

An American Dipper flings the casing of a caddisfly larva.
An American Dipper flings the protective casing off a caddisfly larva. Note the brown casing midair on the right side of the photo.

After watching the dipper devour the hundredth caddisfly, I realized that we probably shouldn’t think of dippers as cute. It’s hard not to, what with their plump little bodies and tendency to slip off rocks, but up close these birds are really caddisfly-killing machines. This dipper probably doesn’t think of herself as cute; probably more as a “Destroyer of Caddisflies.”

An American Dipper Catches a caddisfly larva.
American Dipper, aka Destroyer of Caddisflies.

That being said, it’s hard not to find happiness in watching a dipper. These handsome birds are so beautifully adapted to their environment. Not only are their feathers waterproof, but they camouflage so perfectly with the rocks and even the water around them. Something I hadn’t appreciated before was the juxtaposition between dippers and their environment. Dippers inhabit fast-flowing mountain streams, which, when you’re smaller than a robin, is quite a chaotic environment. But amid the noise and turbulence around her, the dipper I watched appeared perfectly serene.

Now that’s a comforting role model for us at this moment, isn’t it?

An American Dipper perches on a rock in a rapid stream.

As a bonus, here are a few more photos for your dipper happiness.

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Categories Birds, Colorado, Field NotesTags , , ,

4 thoughts on “The Destroyer of Caddisflies

  1. Barbara MacKinnon April 20, 2020 — 1:27 pm

    Me encanté el artículo Ivan, muchas gracias por compartir tu experiencia y el mensaje. Un abrazo, Barbara


  2. Sarah Gramentine April 24, 2020 — 11:02 am

    I’ve looked for dippers every since my mother showed me one at work in a Wyoming creek about 80 years ago. Thank you, Evan!


    1. Too bad they don’t live in the Midwest!


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