American Dipper discovered

American DIpper

The American Dipper can swim underwater when searching for its favorite prey. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 7, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird of backcountry moves closer to town.”

2014 Update: The dippers we saw were at the waterfall at Curt Gowdy State Park, 30 miles west of Cheyenne. It has become a favorite destination for hundreds of bicyclists nearly year round. I have not seen a dipper there again.

By Barb Gorges

Two friends and I have a favorite hiking destination in the Pole Mountain area. We’re beginning to hike it often enough to notice seasonal and yearly changes in vegetation, stream flow—and our physical fitness.

Our destination is a shaded spot on the bank of a creek from which we have a view down a narrow little canyon. We always enjoy a bit of rest there before striking back up the trail to a solar-heated vehicle.

This summer the falling water can be heard, but not seen. When my teenage son, Jeffrey, accompanied us one morning, he scampered up and around the canyon walls and reported that apparently natural debris had shifted most of the flow out of sight.

Whether the change has anything to do with it or not, this summer we’ve noticed a new bird.

As swallows whipped around and robins called, a quick gray shape determinedly skimmed the surface of the creek, following it to the dark recess made by the rock wall of the formerly visible waterfall.

The first time we saw it, we looked at each other and said, “Dipper?” The second hike it happened, we were sure the stubby-winged bird was an American dipper.

Pole Mountain, in my mind, is not high country. I’ve seen dippers as they dart in and out of waterfalls high in the mountains or dive into rapid mountain rivers, but I wouldn’t expect to find one along a tame little stream so close to the plains.

The dippers (there are other species in Europe and South America) are aquatic songbirds. They dive for insect larvae in streams, propelling themselves underwater with their wings or they simply walk the stream bottom. They can stay submerged up to 15 seconds before popping up on a rock midstream where they stand and bob a bit before plunging back in.

Formerly called the water ouzel, this species of the Rocky Mountains builds a domed nest just above streams or behind waterfalls where it will receive continuous spray, according to the field guides. They’ve also adapted to human construction by building nests under bridges over streams.

I’ve never seen a dipper nest. Even if the creek wasn’t too cold to wade, I’d be reluctant to follow the Pole Mountain bird for fear of disturbing it.

With some birds you might wait until after nesting season to take a look, but dippers are year-round residents. They stay all winter, as long as the water stays open, and move downstream only if it freezes.

How do dippers react to people? Our hiking destination is in the middle of this dipper’s territory, judging from the way it passes us as we sit at the edge of the creek. I don’t know how many other people visit. If this is the dipper’s first year in this canyon, it may find it to be too populous and have to move on.

However, indirect pressure from people may be more detrimental. Kenn Kaufman states in “Lives of North American Birds” that the dipper has declined or disappeared in some of its former haunts because of declines in water quality affecting its food source. This makes dippers a good indicator of the presence or absence of pollution.

The cause for decline in water quality is usually people, directly or indirectly. All kinds of human activities can pollute mountain streams with additional sediment or unnatural chemicals.

It’s ironic that the more we help people to connect with wildlife and the outdoors, the more likely they are to want to work, live and recreate in wild places and the more often wildlife is pushed out.

Maybe, tongue-in-cheek, we proponents of wildlife conservation could be more helpful if we chose to live in an urban apartment, spend our vacation at home and enjoy wildlife programs on TV, leaving the outdoors to those sometimes dangerous wildlife species.

Rather than the classic motto of opponents of industrial sitings, “Not in my backyard,” our new motto could be “Staying in my backyard!”

The Pole Mountain dipper is now practically in our backyard. We must be doing something right. However, we need to respect our new resident’s privacy if we want to encourage it to stay.

I don’t suppose we could salt the creek with caddis fly larvae as sort of a neighborhood welcoming committee’s plate of cookies, could we?