Alone, I walk along the snow-covered boardwalk, pausing to look up the shallow, swift creek spilling its way through the moraines, where the roots of alder, willow, and cottonwood trees define its banks, their branches shelter its course. Beneath a thin ice shelf lacing the surface, coho and sockeye salmon fry shelter unseen in the currents, fatten on a diverse entomological diet, and mature in the cold, clear water that tumbles off Thunder Mountain, on its way to the ocean.
A raven calls hoarsely, unanswered from the forest: 𝑊𝑜𝑛𝑘𝑎! 𝑊𝑜𝑛𝑘𝑎! 𝑊𝑜𝑛𝑘𝑎!
Thirty feet upstream a cottonwood trunk, felled by beavers, forms a natural bridge for hungry, but timid bear cubs to cross the flow while mom hunts egg-laying salmon this summer. In an eddy on the other side of the trunk, a little gray bird bobs to the surface, swims across the current, and hops onto the ice. In its beak a tiny, wriggling, silver fry struggles but is quickly reoriented and swallowed.
In search of a better vantage, I hurry into the woods where a slick trail forces me to slow down. Fortunately, I haven’t far to go, and soon I am on a wooden observation deck, leaning over an ice-covered rail directly above the bird.When asked—and I am asked surprisingly often—what my favorite bird is, I always mention a handful of perennial favorites along with whatever I have been watching lately. A few weeks ago, short-eared owls were high on the list, and for the month previous to that oriental pied hornbills were celebrated near the top. But the number one ranking is always reserved for American dippers (𝐶𝑖𝑛𝑐𝑙𝑢𝑠 𝑚𝑒𝑥𝑖𝑐𝑎𝑛𝑢𝑠).
The first time I saw a dipper I was camped near Bright Angel Creek in Grand Canyon nearly thirty years ago. Lured from my tent by a bald eagle’s call, I walked to the creek to instead be seduced by the most curious little bird I had ever seen floating through the current as buoyant as a taught inner tube, yet able to dive and fly beneath the surface with the grace of a squat little winged otter. I spent an hour that morning watching and taking notes, sketching crudely its stubby, slightly up-cocked tail, its bright gray legs, black eyes showing white lids when closed, its faintly umbered head set atop an otherwise plump, slate-gray body.
I didn’t learn the name of my new little aqueous avian friend until I returned home from the canyon a few days later. A little research taught me that the dipper was also the favorite bird of none other than John Muir, and perhaps nobody has written more eloquently or lovingly about this fellow he called water ouzel: “He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows. Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings, —none so unfailingly.” I couldn’t agree more.
Two Octobers ago I knelt on the bank of this same creek a few hundred yards upstream from here. A dipper was hunting above a broad beaver dam, and returning to a favorite small stump just a few feet away from me to ingest its catch. Apparently I had been perched long enough to have become part of the landscape, and when it decided to hunt elsewhere, it flew straight to me, landing nearly weightless on my right shoulder. Unfortunately, my jacket was slick, and following a brief scramble to gain traction, it slipped off its would-be perch and flew on. I felt like a prince in an old Disney movie in which a cartoon dipper emerges from the river to whisper in my ear some secret that will enable me to rescue the princess or save the castle from attack.
How could it not be cemented in perpetuity atop my favorites list?
Curiously, the name dipper comes not from the habit of taking dips in streams, but from a rather odd terrestrial behavior. This morning I look down on the dipper as it does a series of squats—quickly bending knee and ankle until its belly almost touches the ice, then just as quickly springs back up without pause. Down and back, down and back like an overly enthusiastic cross-fit trainer.
Finishing the workout, he hops to the edge of the ice, squats, leans forward, and submerges his head to scan the creek bottom for prey, then dives in. Sometimes I see him slip under the ice, other times, he disappears into the current. It never takes long for him to re-emerge, meal in his beak which, in most cases is a caddis fly larva.Unlike salmon fry, caddis fly larvae have to be unwrapped before they can be eaten. This favorite food of both fish and birds builds tube-shaped cases from little pieces of vegetation they find in the stream. The cases both camouflage a larva against the stream bed and give it a shell for protection. Without ever setting down its catch, the dipper takes the larva by the head and shakes it violently until all the casing is flung away, leaving behind the soft, and presumably delicious grub.
The birds rests for only a moment before beginning another set of squats, another scan, another swim, and another meal another brief rest. Not once did I see the dipper dive and come up with an empty beak, and I watch for a good twenty minutes during which it hunts continuously. In some ways, the regimen reminds me of my own new routine during the hunker down order: Wake, write, workout, breakfast, hike, eat, write, eat, sleep, repeat.
Leaving the dipper behind, I wander a loop through the forest. The woods are quieter today. Only the lone raven has much to say: 𝑊𝑜𝑛𝑘𝑎! 𝑊𝑜𝑛𝑘𝑎! 𝑊𝑜𝑛𝑘𝑎!
I return one more time to the dipper, who has moved a short distance downstream, putting it in a tough position to watch from boardwalk or platform, so I scramble down to the stream bank where I can hide behind a hemlock and take some shots from close to eye-level. Eventually, snow melt soaking through jeans and woolies conspires with a growling stomach to convince me to climb back up to the trail and head for the truck.
As I toss my backpack into the passenger seat, I hear the raven, and this time spot him at the top of a spruce tree along the road: 𝑊𝑜𝑛𝑘𝑎! 𝑊𝑜𝑛𝑘𝑎! 𝑊𝑜𝑛𝑘𝑎! There is still no answer to his call.
This morning it seems all three of us—dipper, raven, and me—old friends each in his own rhythmic routine, are walking alone.