Monday, February 25, 2002

Finn and I went for a walk today in the forest. It was a beautiful day here in the island, cool and crisp and dry, with sun shining through a high lace of cirrus clouds. Kilarney Creek was a raging torrent, swelled from the rains of the past week, rain which was almost constantly pouring for 48 hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

To our delight, we came across a pair of American Dippers chasing each other up and down the water fall. These are the strangest songbirds in our region, for they feed primarily by plunging into fast rushing streams, swimming under water and plucking insect larvae or small fish out of the current. As the article in the above link says, "this feat has been compared to cafeteria dining inside a washing machine."

To the untrained eye, the dipper looks like a jittery starling, or a big wren with a nervous disorder. They constantly bob up and down on their tiny spindly legs like they are on the verge of imminent urination. Then without warning they leap into the white water, or perhaps jump into the air and fly like a dart up and down the stream, weaving in and out of branches and bushes. With a coat of down under their feathers, they seem to be half duck, half songbird.

We seem to have a breeding pair on hand in the woods, and with a bit of luck, we may get to see the raising of their young. Young dippers are trained for life as the keystone cops of passerines:

Even the baby birds handle white water like, well, like dippers. Adults often build their soccer-ball-sized nests where the fledgling young go straight from sanctuary to surging stream. "I've seen them hit the pounding current, tumble head over heels, get whipped downstream, then bob to the surface and calmly swim to the side," says Osborn. "However, I don't think this is their preferred way to leave the nest."

We'll keep our eye on them and see what they get up to this spring.

More on dippers here.

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