“While water sings, so must he, in heat or cold, calm or storm, ever attuning his voice in sure accord; low in the drought of summer and the drought of winter, but never silent.” –John Muir
On a recent snowshoeing trip on a cold Winter day, my trail led past a stream which was big enough and turbulent enough to have kept a strip of open water. Two birds hopped and bobbed about in the frigid water, oblivious of me and apparently impervious to the cold. They chattered to each other and soon flew off up the stream where I could hear them still for some time.
Wherever there are cold mountain streams in the West, there are Water-Ouzels or Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus) : America’s only aquatic songbird. About the size of a Robin, round and smooth as a pebble, the bird has a soft gray color and a short, up-turned tail like a wren. It’s diet consists largely of the immature aquatic insects that fly fishers know : caddisflies, mayflies, stoneflies and the like. Since these insects cling to the undersides of submerged rocks, the Water Ouzel happily dives beneath the surface in even the most turbulent water to snatch it’s food from the rocks. They have no webbed feet but using their strong, short wings they may propel themselves several feet down to reach the tastiest morsels. An extra, transparent eyelid serves as a swim goggle underwater. Extra oils are carefully preened along its feathers, so water literally rolls off the active little birds. Their flitting, bobbing behavior in and out of the water also helps keep water from penetrating. Like our “Robin”, it derives it’s common name after its European counterpart.
For much of the year they are solitary with each bird to a stretch of stream enlivening it with their varied, warbling, thrush-like songs. In deepest winter, birds may move downslope to find open water and thereby congregate somewhat. And during nesting season, pairs will form to defend a linear territory, nest and rear young in nests constructed of moss and fine grasses so artfully crafted along stream banks that they are almost impossible to detect. Often within the spray of a tumbling stream, the small, covered hut-like nests are built on rock ledges or withing a crevice. Three or four eggs are nestled inside. Both parents care for the young until they fledge.
As long as there are clean, cold mountain streams unpolluted through Man’s interference, they will be serenaded by these charming, active birds.
If you can’t visit your local Ouzel, enjoy these glimpses on YouTube: