“Find a fall, or cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream, and there you will surely find its complementary Ouzel, flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained, and neither seeking nor shunning your company.” -John Muir
Meet the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) of the family Cinclidae, also known as the Water Ouzel
We had been driving all morning through Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. We stopped at a pullout near a stream to take in some of the untouched beauty of the valley. Once parked we heard a beautiful birdsong drifting toward us from near the bridge. I grabbed my camera, wandered down to the water to investigate and found the bird right away. I had no idea what it was but liked the way it had perched on a stone in the river so started taking photos. Moments later John came up behind me and was able to identify this bird as an American Dipper. Although he’d never seen one before, he knew of this unique songbird. This bird is fully aquatic in that it finds its meals in the water and is the only songbird of its kind in North America.
Fascinated by this discovery, we stayed and watched for several minutes while the bird sang, dipped and searched for prey just beneath the water. Several times it disappeared for seconds while it dove to the bottom of the stream in search of food. The Dipper flew from rock to rock, dipped and bobbed, dove under water occasionally resurfacing with a catch. Throughout our stay, whenever the Dipper was above water we could hear it singing its loud, melodious, wren-like tune.
John Muir captures perfectly an encounter with the American Dipper in this quote: “The loose snow was already over five feet deep on the meadows, making extended walks impossible without the aid of snowshoes. I found no great difficulty, however, in making my way to a certain ripple on the river where one of my ouzels lived. He was at home, busily gleaning his breakfast among the pebbles of a shallow portion of the margin, apparently unaware of anything extraordinary in the weather. Presently he flew out to a stone against which the icy current was beating, and turning his back to the wind, sang as delightfully as a lark in springtime.”
Many birds sing only during breeding months in the hopes of attracting a mate and to warn off other males. This bird sings all year round, yet it lives a solitary life by choice and only pairs up during breeding season. We had spent only a few minutes with this American Dipper but they were some of the most memorable and rewarding minutes of our week-long journey through Yellowstone. And I’m so grateful for its song that led us to this new adventure.
This story has been reproduced as it was first published in early 2015. It was only updated to put into blog format.