The river flows strongly and swiftly, sweeping over huge granite boulders. Low-hanging branches dip gently into the racing water. The air is filled with the smell of damp ground and moss. It is cool and calm, but the woods are full of life – grey wagtails are flying upstream; blackbirds and song thrushes are calling from the treetops above.
I’m scanning the riverbanks in search of a remarkable bird that calls this fast-flowing environment home – the dipper.
Adult dipper being hassled by juvenile – Nicole Fraser (RSPB Supporter)
What is a dipper? Well, dippers are small, plump birds, a little smaller than a blackbird. They have dark brown feathers and a large white bib. They have quite a short stumpy tail that reminds me rather of a wren’s upright perky tail. They spend their days alongside fast-flowing rivers, mainly in upland areas in the UK but they can also be found in more lowland areas of south-west England.
I’m hopeful that there might be a dipper perched on one of the large granite outcrops in the water. A quick check through the binoculars and despite not spying any birdlife, I have a sneaking suspicion the dippers are about… there are definitely some guano on those rocks and I’m hopeful they belong to the dipper.
I head upstream, following the snaking course of the river. I’m listening out for a distinctive sharp call that pierces through the tumble of the rushing water. After a while, my listening is rewarded and I catch hold of a few short, sharp, ‘chip’ notes. They’re all I need to confirm I am indeed in dipper territory.
Adult dipper standing on a waterfall – Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
While you’d think that living next to a torrent of water would be far from ideal, the dipper is perfectly adapted to this environment. In fact, dippers feed predominantly while under the water – taking invertebrates from the riverbed. Their third transparent eyelid, known technically as the ‘nictitating membrane’ allows them to see underwater, quite a bonus when you’re on the hunt for mayfly nymphs, caddisfly larvae and even little fish such as minnows. They can also spread their wings out when underwater which helps to anchor them to the stream bed.
They don’t just feed in this extreme environment; they nest here too. Dipper nests are typically constructed of grasses and mosses and formed into a cosy domed shape. You’ll find them tucked away out of the reach of the water, perhaps in a crevice in the streamside rocks or else in man-made structures such as bridges. It’s hard to believe that tiny chicks will grow up so close to such a dramatic and sometimes dangerous playground.
The needy chick is back hassling the adult for more food – Nicole Fraser (RSPB Supporter)
Not long after I hear the dipper’s call, I glimpse a slight movement on one of the boulders nearest the bank. Standing very still, I lift my binoculars and scan the scene. I’m totally amazed to see not one, but two dippers! There’s a smart-looking adult busily attending a rather fluffy and paler chick. The chick is begging for food and as it does so, making the distinctive bobbing movement that gives the dipper its name. The adult flies off to the further bank, presumably in search of more food. The chick follows, constantly pestering its parent for some more grub. They bob along the river’s edge for some time until they disappear off round a bend and I continue my walk upstream, smiling at their antics.
It’s been a privilege to watch these birds – I’ve seen them before but never for so long and never a juvenile. If you’d like to get your dipper fix then keep an eye out if you’re near rocky upland streams. RSPB reserves can also be good for dipper-spotting, such as RSPB Haweswater, RSPB Cwm Clydach, RSPB Aghatirourke or RSPB Wood of Cree, to name but a few.
Thank you to Nicole Fraser for sharing these lovely photos, that sparked a memory of Jos’ recent trip to the southwest. If you have photos that you would like to share, send us an email at email@example.com, we love seeing your adventures and the species you find along the way.
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