For the Birds Radio Program: Dipper

Original Air Date: July 28, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about snipe hunts and how she was almost tricked herself on her trip out west. 4:22

Audio missing


Most everybody has heard of snipe hunts. Armed with a stick and paper bag in a more innocent era, little kids were sent out to catch the elusive snipe. The stinging shame of realizing they were duped by grownups often got children to thinking there really wasn’t such a bird, and even today when I show slides of Common Snipe, some adults are taken aback to learn that this is a real feather and blood bird, not a fictional invention.

Last week I started thinking I was the unwitting victim of a kind of snipe hunt. My family went to Wyoming, and I desperately wanted to see an American Dipper. This songbird supposedly graces just about every rushing mountain stream, bobbing on rocks and dipping into the water, sometimes appearing to be swept away by powerful currents but always popping up not far downstream. I told my kids about this wondrous bird, building up a yearning in them to see it, too.

For two full days in the Tetons and three more days in Yellowstone, we searched every mountain stream and river we came to. I saw a Townsend’s Solitaire splashing and bathing in one small rapids, and a delicate Calliope Hummingbird swooping and darting above a gurgling stream, but no dipper. My kids started doubting that such a bird existed. I saw two back in 1979, but even my imagination was feeling bleak, and I started thinking maybe those two were apparitions, the pictures of dippers in the field guides nothing more than cruel hoaxes.

And then, as we followed a path down to the lower falls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Joey spotted what seemed to be a gray bird in a gurgling stream along our trail. He wasn’t sure he had seen anything at all, but I checked it out. In the shadows of late afternoon, we both saw a gray bird sitting on a rock. It was the right size, but its tail was too long and it splashed about, bathing rather than feeding. When it turned to face us, we saw that it was just a soaking wet robin.

Joey and I looked sadly at each other, but suddenly, as we were despairing of ever seeing one, another gray bird flew in on the same rock–and this one was, without a doubt, a real, live dipper. It was soft gray with delicately etched white along the edges of its flight feathers, making it a young of the year. (Adults are solid slate gray.) It held up its short, stubby tail like a wren, and dipped its chunky body up and down like a Disney hippopotamus ballerina doing pliets. Now and again it would blink, and the white feathers on its eyelids and its white nictitating membranes sparkled in the forest gloom. Winking and eye fluttering may be part of the dipper’s romantic allure as in humans and Disney hippos.

We watched it pick through the mosses on the rock, then hop into a rushing pool of water, dipping up and down and sticking its face right into the cold glacial melt, coming up for air and to swallow the bugs it caught. We were struck by how dry it stayed–water off a dipper’s back would be an apt expression. A dipper’s oil gland is fully 10 times the size of a robin’s–explaining why this one stayed sleek and dry while the robin, now preening on a branch above, looked scraggly and unkempt.

Joey watched the dipper a minute or two, and everyone else in our family enjoyed it, too, but I was transfixed for a full 10 minutes, watching its robin-like feet holding tightly onto the slippery rocks and how whirlpools and waterfalls in the stream’s rapids didn’t faze it. Gray seems like such a dull color, but the rushing water gave its feathers a translucence, and it carried the aura of a delicate, magical rainbow. We left Yellowstone the next day and it may be years before I see another dipper, but this one will remain in my mind’s eye forever.