Wednesday 3 February 2010

Not dipping on a Dipper

As some of you (particularly those who regularly read Dale's excellent Discovering Alpine Birds) might know, I spent two weeks in January in and around Tirol.
The main reason of course was a ground breaking international event Dale's blogged about here (and that I will blog about at a later point in time if time herself, who is a river, will permit) but of course, while I was there and the family was with me, I thought that I might also try to get some birding done.
And yes, I did.
Well, I had visited the Alps before on a few occasions in the 1980ies and late 1990ies and was thus familiar with the very vast majority of its special birds, so there was no real rush to get lifers. However, I very much looked forward to re-connecting with a few enigmatic species I hadn't seen in a long, long time.
Amongst these species was the Eurasian Dipper.
The Dipper is a bird frequently found along mountainous streams and creeks (and therefore not a tricky bird to see or get), yet I had spent 12 years in the flatlands of northern Germany where it is but a rare visitor from Scandinavia, and one that had basically avoided my detection for the entire period there .
It was thus with great pleasure that I found a mountain creek with a lovely weir and heaps of boulders along its banks was running through our little holiday destination of Kiefersfelden, right on the German-Austrian border. And by a stroke of luck (aka a good and long nap of my son), I found myself searching said location on my first full day there, for the Dipper.
I will let the pictures do the telling in a few instances, and it will suffice to write that I found not one but five Dippers along the 1.5 kms of river I searched, although the first 5 minutes were spent in a state of anxiety when the weir, my expected hot spot, held only Mallards.
Shortly after the weir though is where this blog post really begins:

The weir where the Dipper wasn't at first - but was on later day's visits I won't blog about...

The river above the weir where the Dipper wasn't where the Dipper was at first - but wasn't on later day's visits I won't blog about (the weir is in the background)...

And here it is, the star of this post:



The passerine diving machine - going...

... going ...

... gone - what an unexpected end to this series!

And it's back up again.
The claws of this species, by the way, must be amongst the world's sharpest. Because those rocks can be dippery when wet.

I had watched the Dipper for well over half an hour when I realized it got dark and that it was time to return home to the family.
Walking along the river bank back towards the weir, a strange and barely audible whispering caught my ear.
I stopped in my tracks.
There it was again, and this time I was able to locate it as coming from amongst the boulders underwater.
In tune with the waves' rushing and purling but clearly discernible against its acoustic background, there was a tiny, soft, and repeated "Who", and like Horton I bent down to investigate further.
To my amazement, I found a choir of caddisfly larvae had gathered on a small area of sand amongst the rocks where the current was subdued by their larval cases and the boulders sheltering them, and they sang a sad and mellow song that I will reproduce here to the best of my abilities and as I noted it out in the field, lying down in the snow by the river, and I will call their tune The Ballad of Jack The Dipper.

The Ballad of Jack the Dipper

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jackbill has The Dipper, dear
And he keeps it out of sight

When the shark bites with his teeth, dear
Scarlet billows start to spread
A white bib, though, wears The Dipper, dear
So there's not a trace of red

On the embankment...around sunset,
Lies a dead aquatic critter
Someone's diving 'round the river bed
Is the someone Jack the Dipper?

From a boulder in the river
A small pebble’s drooping down
Yes, it’s from a larva’s case, dear
Bet you Dipper's back in town

Makes you wonder if we owe one of literature's finest stories to Brecht & Weill spending one too many holidays at a creek in the Alps ...


Monday Birder said...

Dippers are one of my favourite species Jochen, I'm glad you got to see them. Nice poem too.

corey said...

It's been awhile since we had a Jochen-post and this one made the wait worth it!

Great bird, great post, great ballad: I might dream of singing caddisfly larvae tonight...

Anonymous said...

A Frank Sinatra tribute and Dippers - a classic post, Jochen.



SAPhotographs (Joan) said...

Maybe it was a touch of sun Jochen? LOL!! Love your words and this fantastic post. What a great day it was. I have never seen a bird do that.

John B. said...

I'm glad you didn't dip on it.

Patrick B. said...

I searched for dippers in the US in various spots until finally seeing one in Oregon. The Eurasian Dipper is even more handsome than ours. Great sighting and great post.

Anonymous said...

The bird is so cute! Great bird, great scenery, great music. Way to go, Jochen.

Jochen said...

@Richard: yes, they are very cool to watch. glad you liked the post!

@Corey: wow, thanks. So, how was your dream?

@Jon: yes, when I first had the idea I was - of course - thinking of the original German version of Brecht's Three-penny Opera. When I then googled the English lyrics I was surprised to find many different versions, most of which were horrible. The one I liked best and thus used for the post was the one Sinatra sang!!
Thanks for the compliment, and how's the North?

@Joan: thanks! Dippers only occur in Eurasia and the Americas and are - as far as I know - the only songbirds who swim and dive much like penguins. They are very neat to watch. Might be a reason for a South African to visit Europe?

@John: ha, thanks, and I am sure the Dipper was glad I didn't slip on him!

@Patrick: yes, apparently the American Dipper is a scarcer bird than the Eurasian one. All you need to do in the southern half of Germany is find a small fast-flowing river with rocks, pebbles and a weir or two and chances are pretty high there'll be Dippers.
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it and were you actually commenting from PR?

@Wren: with its short tail, it almost looks like a Wren, doesn't it? Thanks a lot!!

Hilke Breder said...

Love your lyrics! Just wished you had recorded the song for us :-)

After reading your post and looking at your photos I had to see a Dipper in action. A quick trip to S. Germany was out of question of course. So I did the next best thing. There is a nice video by wildaboutimages on you tube. What a fascinating bird.

Laurent said...

I still have to see a Dipper (Eurasian or American), so I am obviously jaleous. Funny that I spent so much time as a child in the Alps and never paid attention to those...ah, those lost opportunities!

Good to see you back, Jochen.

mon@rch said...

I only hope to see a dipper one day! Bravo job with this!

Christopher said...


...and thanks for putting the song in my head.

Jochen said...

@Hilke. you are absolutely right, dippers are possibly the most fun birds to watch. It's not what they look like, it's how they behave.

@Laurent: oh, I'd say a summer trip to the Alps is an absolute necessity then, ey? You know, sort of restore your birder's honour or whatever, just get here with the family!

@Mon@rch: thanks!! And good luck with seeing a Dipper. If you some day find yourself somewhere in Europe, let me know! I'll tell the dippers to go and meet you!

@Christopher: thanks and you're welcome. By the way, thanks for posting other ducks but Harlequins on your blog. I have never seen the clowns, so the typical East Coast winter blog posts hurt a lot... ;-)