Earth Notes: The Lovable Little Fellow of Clear Streams

Nov 21, 2012

The Southwest may be dry, but it’s interwoven with rushing streams. Where they run cool and clear, they are often enlivened by what the naturalist John Muir described as a “singularly joyous and lovable little fellow.”

Muir was talking about his favorite bird, the American dippers that live in the Sierra Nevada. But the same irrepressible bundles of energy are found on the Colorado Plateau, from high mountain streams near treeline to the innermost depths of Grand Canyon.

The American Dipper
Credit US Fish and Wildlife Service

Dippers are versatile because they don’t seem to mind what the surrounding vegetation or terrain looks like. What they crave is cold, clear water cascading over waterfalls and boulders. Look in those places, and you might find a plain gray mite that is our only aquatic songbird. But if the water isn’t too loud you might first notice an exuberant, bubbling song. Dippers sing as if they were giving voice to the water itself, pouring forth a torrent of rich tinkling notes.

Watch a few moments. You will almost certainly see the dipper dive into the water, even into raging rapids, and then reappear in the same spot as if the water were still. And so it goes, from mountain peak to desert canyon, from summer’s heat to winter’s cold. Dippers walk and bob along water’s edge, hopping lightly from rock to rock, singing their delightful songs, peering eagerly into the water, and making repeated short dives in search of underwater insects.

John Muir was right; the dipper is definitely a “lovable little fellow.”