About a month ago I had a great encounter with an American Dipper. It started off with me getting a shot of it looking off into the distance at something that caught its eye. Notice the ice crystals on the legs! No big deal for a dipper!
Seconds later it was diving into the frigid waters and hunting down a fish. With water droplets beading off the feathers, it surfaced and started swimming towards me to the nearest bank. The fish squirmed back and forth but couldn’t break free from the tight grip on the tail. These fish are known as sticklebacks, aptly named for the multiple sharp spines that run along their backs. This didn’t seem to deter the dipper though. It managed to avoid the spines and once to shore the fish was quickly put out of its misery.
Water droplets fly as the dipper smacks the fish against the ice to kill it. Once dead, the bird took a brief break before it picked the fish up again and repeatedly smacked it against the ice. This continued for several minutes with the dipper slowly moving closer and closer to me. The only explanation I can think of for why it continued to hit the fish against the ice was that it needed to blunt the sharp large spines before it could swallow the fish whole.
At this point the dipper was a mere 5 feet from me. Almost like a house cat that brings a mouse back to show off its catch! This was the final shot before it gulped the fish down and dove back into the water for another. Such an amazing sequence to see and I continue to marvel at these unique birds!
A funny photo for the day. I will let you decide if the dipper was sticking its tongue out at me, for the photo, or just because it can!
An American Dipper takes a break from hunting to fluff its feathers. Birds will do this for a variety of reasons. In this case the dipper purposely fluffed the feathers to trap air between the different layers. This serves two main functions. One is to keep the warm air close to the body to maintain its body temperature and the other is to get enough air between the feathers to improve buoyancy when diving for food. By doing so, it easily floats back to the surface with minimal effort despite being weighed down by whatever food it manages to catch. A sick bird will also appear fluffed but this is accompanied by other signs such as lethargy, decreased alertness such as closing of the eyelids and usually thin body condition. As for the photo, it is one of my favourites because of the soft yellow tinge to the water created by the setting sun and the way the bird’s tail feathers match the angle and pattern of the splintered bark.
The dipper gets the distinction of being the only aquatic passerine (songbird) in North America. Remarkably, it makes its living diving and swimming in frigid glacier fed waters and then flies around in temperatures as low as -40 degrees. Adaptations that allow this bird to survive include an extra layer of feathering, an enlarged preen (oil secreting) gland for waterproofing, a nictitating membrane (third eyelid), enlarged muscles of the eye to accommodate for underwater vision, nasal flaps and increased hemoglobin levels to boost their blood oxygen carrying capacity that is essential for underwater swimming for up to 30 seconds at a time! I spotted this one along a partially frozen river as it entered a small ice cave in search of food.
This nest, built out of moss was on a steep cliff next to a series of rapids near the Akamina road to Cameron Lake. There were three chicks nearing fledgling age that somehow managed to stay within the nest while extending their heads out to get fed by their parents. The two adults fed these chicks every 5-10minutes and tended to the nest. The fecal sacks produced by the chicks were removed by the parents and dropped into the rapids to wash them away.
An American dipper holds onto the slippery rocks after catching several insects along the river with the rapids splashing around the bird
An American dipper partially submerges in the rapids to search for insects to bring back to the nest.