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American Dipper

I recently made an autumn photography trip to the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to capture this year’s vibrant autumn colors. While hiking along the Chain Lakes trail in the Mt. Baker ski area, I noticed a small, nondescript, little bird along the shore of the stream. It would bob or “dip” a few times as it hopped from rock to rock and then dive into the swift current. This plain but remarkable little bird is commonly known as the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) or Water Ouzel by some and it is America’s only aquatic song bird.

Dippers, not surprisingly, take their name from their characteristic up and down bobbing or “dipping” motion as they walk along the shore. Living along swift flowing streams the Dipper fearlessly dives into swift icy streams searching for aquatic insects. Using its wings, it “flies” to the bottom where it hunts for food while walking along the bottom by holding onto the stones so as not to be swept downstream. Unlike the majority of song birds that only visit the northwest, the Dipper is a year-round resident and only leaves its home stream to find open water in the event its waters freeze over.

While only 5 to 6 inches tall the Dippers nests can be a foot or more in diameter. They are a domed structure with a large entrance near the lower side facing the water and are comprised of an outer layer of living mosses with some twigs, bark strips, or dry grass woven into the nesting cup. Nests are typically built very close to the water on cliffs or behind waterfalls where the spray keeps the mosses alive and the inaccessibility provides protection from predators.

Dippers are typically monogamous, with the female incubating 4 or 5 eggs for approximately two weeks while the male provides her food. Once the young hatch, the female broods them for about a week, and then joins the male in feeding the chicks. The young leave the nest at 24 to 26 days, and can swim and dive immediately after leaving the nest.

These little birds are relatively fearless and I found it easy to photograph them with some patience. After initially startling them, it only took 5 or 10 minutes before they returned and were not bothered by my presence, perching on a nearby rock only 10 to 15 feet away. The two Dipper images above were taken with a Canon 100mm – 400mm lens with a focal length of between 250mm to 300mm.

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