The American Dipper

If you’ve watched the interview from last week with KPAX about the Summit to Sea project, and were wondering what the heck I was talking about when I first appeared on camera pointing away saying, “Dipper!”, then this is the post for you.

The American Dipper is what I had spotted, a type of bird found here in Montana around streams all year-round. They’re fairly common, I think, but easily unnoticed, mostly because they’re more or less gray in appearance, and not really that flashy or noisy. Nevertheless, Dippers are actually pretty distinctive, if you notice them. They’re about the same size and shape as a robin, but, as I mentioned, are a little more uniformly grey-blue, at least from a distance. When you get a closer look, you can see there’s a little more to them than just “grey”, but most of the time, you just see the broad color. Males and females look more or less alike.

The most distinctive part about them, though, is that Dippers dip. They usually do this one or two ways. When you see them, they might be standing on a log, bobbing up and down in what I call a “dip-dippy” sort of way. For the amount of squats these little guys do, you’d think they’d have giant thighs of steel, but then again, they don’t weigh much, so perhaps they don’t get a good workout. Now that I think about it, I guess they do mostly head-bobbing anyway, so maybe they’re legs aren’t really doing a whole lot in the process.

The other style of dipping they do is that they do a lot of swimming. I guess they technically do a lot of skinny dipping, since they don’t wear little bathing suits, but they’ll just hop into the water of a rushing stream, summer or winter, and dive in and out of it, sometimes just poking their head under, and other times fully submerging themselves, swimming underwater like they’re flying in the current.

I don’t know whether they do this recreationally or not, but most of the time I understand they’re looking for food. In most cases, I think they’re seeking the various larvae of aquatic insects, though my guess is that they’d just as soon eat a small fish or tadpole if they caught one. As I was watching one last week, I saw it emerge with something vaguely wormy-looking from a distance, with which it then flew out of sight to the shore, presumably to eat it in more than one bite.

Another identifying feature is their frequent blinking. I don’t think they actually blink any more than other birds, but they have a white nictating membrane that they’ll actuate frequently, giving the impression that they’re flashing their eyes at you. Whether this has an actual communicative function or not I’m not sure, but they do it quite a bit. Oh, and if you’re wondering what a “nictating membrane” is, you can think of it as a second set of eyelids– the semi-translucent kind that close from the side, rather than top to bottom as usual. They’re actually pretty common amongst all sorts of animals (birds, reptiles, and mammals), and most birds use them as a sort of “flight goggles” to keep their eyes from drying out (or being damaged by debris like sand and dirt) while flying. A lot of critters use them as “swim goggles” as well, and I’m sure the Dipper finds it useful in both applications. Humans kind of have them– if you have a look at your own eyes in a mirror, you might notice a sort of pink membrane on the nose-side of your eyeballs. I can’t remember the anatomical name of this structure, but I think it’s thought to be a vestigial remnant of a nictating membrane.

Of course, after all this talk about nictating membranes and what-not, I was editing a Dipper video, and it looks like it could very well have just plain white regular eyelids that it keeps flashing. They seem kind of opaque, and they close from the top like conventional eyelids… so I might need to consult an ornithologist regarding that bit. Now I’ll have to try to get some closer images to further scrutinize it, so I’ll let you know if I get any answers to what is not doubt going to be a burning question for you.

With a bit of practice, you can identify Dippers based on just their sound. They’re not particularly musical, and can be a little difficult to hear depending on how loud the background sounds of the water are, but their “chik-chik-chik” or “chak-chak-chak” can often be audible, even by noisy streams and waterfalls.

Dippers can be found near streams and rivers throughout the mountains of western Montana, and much of the greater Rocky Mountain area across North America. In many ways, it seems like very suitable mascot for an endeavor like the Summit to Sea project, given that they’re at home in the rivers and streams of the entire Columbia River Basin, and we’ll probably see them throughout the length of our journey.

Speaking of the project, we’re over halfway through our fundraising calendar now, and we’ve managed to get pledges for just about 19% of our goal. With only twenty days remaining before the end of the month, and still a large way to go to meet our goal, now is a great time to become a backer, if you haven’t done so already! And if you have already elected to make a pledge of support, thank you! We’re continuing to market the project as much as we can (at the risk of making those of you who hear about it over and over sick of it), but any extra help you can provide in helping us make contact with potential backers outside of our circles is extremely helpful. It’s really extraordinary that you’ve helped us get as far in this effort as we have, and Lorie and I thank you very much for all of your help.

As we make they journey, you can expect me to be meticulously cataloging the critters we encounter, so if you like things like this journal entry, make a pledge today, and help send Lorie and I down the river to what other things of naturalistic interest the Columbia River Basin may have in store!

The American Dipper: A Basic Taxonomy, with improvised translation

Kingdom: Animalia
(you know… animals)

Phylum: Chordata
(animals with a “cord”, or spine, basically)

Class: Aves
(Avians– birds)

Order: Passeriformes
(“passer” is Latin for sparrow,
so “sparrow-shaped”)

Family: Cinclidae
(I think it might mean covered or enclosed… maybe talking about the nictating membrane? Like a “covered eye” or something? Of course, sometimes these terms come from weird places,
like specific internal organs, or other “unseen” features.)

Genus & Species
Cinclus mexicanus
(Uh… blinking mexican species? I’m pretty much making it up at this point.)

Helpful References

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