There exists a small, grayish, toy-like bird with penguin-esque habits not in a fairytale, but in and around rushing streams of the far north and in montane and canyon zones of the west. It eagerly and readily hops about creekside from stone to stone, disappearing in a flash for extended moments beneath fast-moving water one expects would speedily whisk it away, only to amazingly pop up – like a cork – back upon a rock, where it repeats the feat over and over. According to trusted records, American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) has never been seen in North Dakota, yet it nests as near as the Black Hills and it has shown up in Minnesota on rare occasion.
I honestly can’t recall my first encounter with this almost comical bird, but it surely occurred in my youth as our family made near annual treks across the West in summer to visit paternal relatives in Oregon. A short and unexceptional annotation in my personal records simply states, “Before 1982,” that being the year I began a systematic accounting for every new species found. No doubt it was along some small Rocky Mountain or Cascade river, as the bird never strays far from water. In fact, it’s the only true aquatic passerine (perching bird) in all of North America.
The American dipper has a blocky chunk of catbird-gray feathers with a short, thrushlike bill and a dark eye. It sports a short, squared tail and similarly abbreviated wings.
The eyelid (or nictitating membrane, in ornithology speak) is white and quite noticeable as the bird has a habit of winking regularly. By repeatedly bobbing, or “dipping,” its entire body on thin, pinkish legs, it in some ways resembles a shorebird commonly found here: the spotted sandpiper. Given the above characteristics, however, the American dipper really cannot be confused with any other species.
My job called me away over the Thanksgiving holiday and I ended up spending it in Colorado. It was while crossing a bridge over the Eagle River during an afternoon walk that I recognized a sharp metallic “zeet” call. I stopped and located the dipper actively foraging along the stream in temperatures well below freezing.
In the 1980s, I was an active fly fisherman and used to encounter this species regularly. I remember it behaving in a very tame manner, going about its business with little or no regard to me standing in close proximity. Normally found alone, the birds would vigorously defend territory against other dippers.
By defying all things we normally associate with songbirds, the dipper is quite unique. It regularly jumps or dives into the most turbulent water, where it spends up to 15 seconds under the surface either swimming or walking on the bottom in a continuous search for aquatic insects, sometimes turning over small rocks in the process.
Three physiological adaptations allow this bird to do what it does in even the coldest of conditions. First, it has a measurably low metabolic rate. Second, its blood is known to carry more oxygen than other passerines of its size. Finally, as one might imagine, it possesses a considerably high count of body feathers, allowing it to stay insulated from the cold far more effectively than most birds.
With its short, stubby wings, it is no surprise that dippers will only move so far, even during winter months. It’s not a migration, per se, more a dispersal. It will shift altitudinally though, which simply means repositioning itself at lower elevations in order to find ice-free conditions along riparian foraging areas.
It’s this relative lack of travel that makes the chance of ever seeing one in North Dakota somewhat less likely. Still, with a nesting population as close as the Black Hills and historical records from northeast Minnesota, well, the possibility is tantalizing. So much so that to this day I can’t pass by any of the dams along the Red River in Fargo without at least a casual scan of the rocks. I keep thinking that maybe, just maybe …
Corliss is a West Fargo native, avid birder and a North Dakota Game and Fish instructor.