February has been very wintry, with colder-than-average temperatures, snow flurries and a lot of gray skies.
Despite all this, if you walk along Bear Creek between the downtown parking lot and the Church of the Transfiguration, you can hear the beautiful canary-like song of the dipper. These fantastic little birds are permanent residents along our boisterous mountain streams and therefore one of the earliest birds to sing, mate and nest in the area.
By the time the summer residents arrive in May, the dippers already have young in their nests. Dippers sing in winter, build their nests in April and usually raise two broods per year.
Dippers frequently drop downstream in winter as streams freeze over and move back upstream as the streams thaw. They must have access to the water, for their food is all obtained from the stream. As long as there is an open hole in the ice, they will dive in to feed.
Sometimes they will go in one hole and work downstream and come out another hole farther down. Although members of the wren family, they are true water birds. They do not have webbed feet for swimming, but their feet are extra large and have long toenails, which give them a better ability to cling to slippery rocks. They also walk along the bottom of streams and swim by using their wings.
Their nests are big, 12-inch balls of plant material placed on a canyon wall or atop a rock, stump or post along a bubbling mountain stream. Started with twigs, the nests are covered on the outside with green fresh moss or grass so they look like they are part of the cliff wall or stump.
This makes them difficult to locate, even though they are right out in the open. Since man has provided bridges for them to nest under, their nests are often placed on beams or abutments beneath a bridge. The nest lining is thrown out after the first brood is fledged and presumably replaced before the second clutch of eggs is laid.
Dippers stand on a rock and bounce up and down on their legs, and then dive head-first into the water. The dipping up and down is the reason they are named dippers. This may help them see better when locating their prey in the water.
The dipping may compensate for the way water bends light rays and objects seem to bend in water or not be quite where you think they are. The dipper hunts for water insects and their larvae, as well as small fish. They also have been recorded eating small mice, locusts, etc., that have fallen into the water.
Dippers are found on all clear fast-moving mountain streams. They are common on almost all streams but not in great numbers. A pair of nesting dippers seem to defend and patrol about a mile to a mile and a half of stream and chase all intruders from their territory. Locally, they start defending territory as early as February and have young by April.
Young are fed both in and out of the nest after they fledge until the adults have a second brood; then they are on their own.
There are only five species of dippers in the world. Ours is found from the mountain streams of Alaska to Argentina, although those in Mexico and South America are now considered a slightly paler subspecies and they have a brownish wash on their heads and necks. Other species are found in Scotland and across Europe and Asia.
When I was a licensed bird-bander, I frequently banded dippers. They are amazing birds when you have them in your hand. Their outer feathers form an overlapping overcoat, which is kept well oiled from a gland at the base of the tail.
This forms a tight waterproof cover over a very thick layer of down, which keeps them warm in our cold weather. Underneath all those feathers, the plump-appearing bird is actually small, only about half the size it appears to be.