Grays Harbor Birds - American Dipper


Growing up in California my knowledge of this bird was as the older name, Water Ouzel.

I remember seeing one for the first time in a stream in a redwood park and being amazed at its ability to walk on the bottom of the stream … completely underwater!

This bird can do that, and in a current that is strong enough to knock an adult human off their feet. Dippers are great indicators of stream health, having the same requirements as our salmon. Like salmon, Dippers need clean, clear, and cold water. Deforestation and industrial and agricultural pollution increase stream temperature and silt in our waters, reducing the amount of prey for salmon and dippers alike. These birds are hard to find but worth the time. Some facts:

Size: 7 1/2 inches long, wingspan of 11 inches and weighs 2 ounces.

General Description: American Dippers are chunky, solid gray birds, with dark eyes and beaks, and lighter gray legs. They have short tails that are usually cocked skyward, a white upper eyelid seen when they blink, and they constantly bob up and down on their long legs. The Dipper is North America’s only truly aquatic songbird, and in order to survive in the cold waters of winter, it has a low metabolic rate, extra oxygen-carrying capacity in its blood, a dense coat of feathers, much larger oil glands than other passerines to keep them water-proofed, and scales that cover their nostrils when underwater. Like ducks, when molting, they also lose all their wing and tail feathers at once in the summer, making them flightless during this time.

Habitat: Dippers typically can be found in turbulent mountain streams and rivers with rocky bottoms, within forested areas, from alpine zones down to sea level. They also use pond or lake edges.

Behavior: Generally a solitary bird, Dippers spend much of their time hunting for prey underwater, either walking on the bottom gripping the rocks with their long toes, “flying” through water to depths of up to 20 feet, or hopping and flying along the edges of the streams. There are some studies that show their bobbing motions and flashing of the white eyelid may be a form of communication due to the loud noise of rushing water. Their calls and songs are also loud, audible above the noise of the water. They can dive into the water from the air, move rocks with their strong beaks, swim underwater with short, strong strokes of their wings, and fly through waterfalls.

Diet: The American Dipper’s diet is mostly made up of aquatic insects, especially larvae attached to rocks on the bottom of the stream or river. They eat midges, mosquitoes, and mayflies off the surface. They also eat small fish and fish eggs, and will feed at salmon spawning areas.

Nesting: Dippers are mainly monogamous, but polygyny (one male, more than one female) does occur when good territories are limited. The courting dance of the male includes stretching his neck upwards, bill vertical, wings down and partly spread, strutting and singing before the female. Occasionally she joins in and they end with an upward jump, bumping breasts. The female chooses the nest site in the bank along a stream, behind a waterfall, or under a bridge. Both the female and male build the nest in two parts, with an outer shell of wet moss interwoven in a large ball or dome up to a foot in diameter, and the inner cup of grass, leaves, and strips of bark. The entrance is a low opening on the side facing the water. The female incubates 5 to 7 eggs for 13 to 17 days while the male provides food. After the eggs hatch, the female broods the young for about a week, then joins the male in hunting for food. The young leave the nest in 24 to 26 days, and can swim and dive immediately. The parents will often split up the brood and continue to feed the young for up to another month.

Migration Status: American Dippers are year-round residents unless the stream they inhabit freezes. They will leave a frozen stream and travel short distances into lower elevations to find a new stream for the winter.

Conservation Status: Not much is known about the Dipper population status; some development, such as bridge-building, has been good for their population because it furnishes potential nest-building sites. But the deforestation and pollution problems in our fresh-water streams continues to be worrisome, and dams and irrigation systems that alter water levels can also affect their habitat. Restrictions and restoration projects for salmon habitat also benefit Dippers.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: Though few American Dippers are seen, we know they can be found on the Satsop River and its tributaries, and in the streams and rivers in the Lake Quinault area. They can also be found around Lake Sylvia. It takes time and patience to spot them, but they are worth it.

Dianna Moore | Grays Harbor Audubon