Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Patience and Persnickety: American Dippers

... from my Yellowstone archives

There is a funny little plain bird found in the West, the American dipper or ouzel.   He is grey and more grey and just a hint on brown grey on its head and wing feathers.  His body is about the size of a robin’s with a tail too short, and legs too spindly.  The only spots of notice are his feather-covered, white eyelids, which flash when he blinks, and once in a blue moon I catch a glimpse of fancy little white feathers under his tail.  So why am I bothering to write about such a drab little fellow? For one, he sings like an angel, on and on, always with a rushing brook for a background.  Also, his behavior is most unusual.  He swims underwater, not just any water, but usually rushing streams.  The first time I saw a dipper dive into swirling rapids, I couldn't help but wonder if he had gone stark raving mad.  It looked like suicide. 

The dipper lives along fast flowing steams, and finds most of his food on the stream bottom – little aquatic larva, aquatic insects and even tiny fish and fish eggs.  He slips in and out of rapidly flowing water as easily as a trout.  I’m always amazed he can jump off a little boulder into a boil of water and succeed in popping back up onto the same boulder.  Water just slips off his back.  He bobs a couple of times, then jumps right back in.  Once I leaned over a bridge railing and watched him from above.  He uses his wings like a penguin when underwater.

Most dippers build a snug mossy nest under stream bank overhangs, on rock ledges near a stream, and even behind waterfalls.  They build with soggy grasses and mosses, tucking and tucking until the walls remind me of dense felt with only a dipper-sized hole for an entrance.  One pair, in Yellowstone, has been kind enough to build where we can watch them at work.  They've chosen the rockwork on a bridge, right out in the open.

Each year when we arrive the nest is a sorry sight – just a muddle of moss, half covered by gravel thrown by the snowplows during winter.   This year the nest was so bedraggled we wondered if the dippers had abandoned, but they were just waiting for signs of spring.  Snow was still deep in the woods when we noticed the dippers had started work.  First they removed much of the old.

Here are my notes:

April 25: 
We’ve looked for the dipper several times.  I was beginning to get worried, but this morning he (?) perches on a rock just barely above the creek surface and about twenty feet from their annual nest site.  He warbles on and on, singing his melodious song in his quiet way, mixing warbles and gurgles with the creek’s bubbling sounds. 

April 26: 

No sign of the dippers today.  Their nest is well dusted with new snow.
May 2: 
The dipper is a busy little fella this morning.  When we paused here a couple of hours ago he was hard at work bringing mouthfuls of damp vegetation to the nest site.  The back wall is starting to take shape. 

Now, a couple of hours later, we are back.  He (?) is still hard at work and progress has been made.  I just watched four trips, approximately two minutes apart.  So far only one bird for sure. 

The dipper searches along the stream edge for nesting material.  So far it looks like he is bringing back moss.  Some is quite green.  He rather unceremoniously tucks the new stuff into the wall and then tucks and pokes an older part of the wall, packing it tighter.  A dipper nest reminds me of homemade felt when they get all done .. snug against spring rains.  Many dipper nests need protection from the spray of rapids, but not this one.  This one is designed to handle spring rains and occasional dustings of snow.

A second dipper has arrives and pokes about a bit too.  So far I can’t tell the two apart, but I have the impression one is doing most of the work. 

I can’t help but imagine myself with a big basket of mosses, a bowl of water (to wet my moss), and just little tweezers to build my nest with.  I wonder if I could possibly do it.
May 4
The dippers are making progress on their nest.  The back wall is up and starting to cup around on the sides.  Eventually it will look like a little igloo.  Both are bringing in nesting material.  One stayed so long poking and prodding that her (?) mate flew back down to the stream with his mouthful of soggy stuff.  I noticed that the bottom of the nest appears to have been cleaned off.  Sure enough.  This ‘fussy one’ suddenly rested its breast on the floor of the nest and scratched like mad with both feet.  Soon there will be a nice, smooth scraped-out hollow in that nest. 

They are adding some grasses along with moss today.  A long strand of grass can be tucked along the wall, giving some structural support. 

Spits of snow falling.  Our dippers are taking a break.  Ten minute break and then one dipper is back. 

We’ve decided to name the dippers Patience and Persnickety.  Still can’t tell them apart, but one is the master builder, i.e. spends way more time tucking all the new material in.  They come in with pretty good mouthfuls, sometimes compact mouthfuls of moss, sometimes gobs of long stringy grass.  Always wet.  If the organic matter isn’t wet enough, a good dunking in the stream is in order before bringing it to the nest. 

Persnickety is busy tucking, tucking.  She (?) picks up a loose dab that has fallen to the floor and finds a spot for it.  Patience flies in with a nice mouthful of mosses, but Persnickety churrs and doesn’t make room.  Patience flies off for a few seconds, then returns.  Persnickety just isn’t ready so Patience leaves again.... and returns .. and returns.  On the fifth try Patience tries to shoulder his way in, but Persnickety shoos him out again.  He goes up over the wall and away. 
Finally on the sixth try, he flies in and pushes his way around Persnickety and quickly deposits his moss.  No more patience for him!

Often the dippers fly out of sight to gather their nesting material, but this time I get to watch.  Dead grasses droop off the stream bank and into the water.  Patience swims along and grabs a few strands.  A good wetting and the grass is ready to take back to the nest. 

May 8
The dippers have made great progress.  A dome is forming on the mossy home. 

May 10
It's spitting tiny snowflakes. Patience and Persnickity have been hard at work since we were last here.  The weather was so foul yesterday that we made a grocery run to Livingston instead of into the park.  It's obvious the weather didn't deter the dippers.  To my eyes their nest is finished, but one flies in with a mouthful of moss.  They must be working on the finishing touches.