Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Water Sprites

The Water Sprites

By Nancy Partlow

The first in a series called, “Shoot the Deschutes; Photographing the Fauna and Flora of the Deschutes River Valley and Beyond”

We are so blessed to have a wonderful park in our midst; a park that, thanks to the dedicated work of the Olympia Tumwater Foundation, is experiencing a rejuvenation. English ivy is being pulled and replaced with the native plants species that originally flourished there.  Needed infrastructure improvements are taking place.  I’m beginning to love Tumwater Falls Park again the way I did when I was a child.

But as much as I love the park for its beautiful scenery and nourishment of spirit, there is another who loves it more.  An enchanting and unique little creature, it is North America’s only aquatic songbird – the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus).

Also known by its older, more charismatic name of Water Ouzel, the dipper thrives in a beautiful and ever-moving world of cascades and cataracts. Observing it from riverside, this is clearly a being at one with the element in which it abides – cold, rushing water.

I’ve always been aware of dippers at the Falls, but it wasn’t until recently when I sought them out for my Shoot the Deschutes project, that I really got to see them up close.  What I discovered was captivating.

The dipper is a slate-gray bird whose cryptic coloration helps it blend in with the water and weathered basalt of the river.  It is a couple of inches smaller than a robin but larger than the wren it resembles with its short, often-cocked tail.  Compulsively flexing its legs in a bobbing motion reminiscent of deep knee bends, it perpetually genuflects to the river from which it gains its sustenance. My college biology professor once told me that “no one knows why the dipper dips”, and I believe this still holds true.

The dipper makes its living among the rocks and rills of river gorges, hunting for aquatic insects above and beneath the surface of fast moving streams, eating larvae from river bottoms and the undersides of midstream boulders. Fish eggs and small fry are also on its menu.  The toes of its feet are very long, to help it maintain a grip upon the streambed, while the wings are short and stubby to facilitate its ability to “fly” under water.

The water ouzel has a genuine song of “piping notes and trills”, which is loud enough to often be the only avian voice discernible above the roar of the river.

The dipper’s nest is about the size of a football, with a mossy outer shell and an interior cup nest composed of grasses, leaves and bark strips.  According to an article by Dianna Moore of Grays Harbor Audubon, “The female chooses a nest site in the bank along a stream, behind a waterfall or under a bridge."

My recent experiences with dippers at Tumwater Falls Park fortuitously coincided with the fledging of two juveniles from a nest somewhere along the gorge.  I never did discover the nest site, but it was the piercing calls of the babies begging food from their mother that helped me track the trio as they flew in short jaunts up and down the riparian corridor.

The first time I actually saw one of the birds, it was clinging to a near-vertical rock face at the base of the lower falls.  A youngster, its downy feathers dotted with tiny silvery sequins of spray, was watching and waiting for its mother.  The child had obviously been there for quite some time as three small, dead fish were laid out before it, as if on a moss-covered platter.

This bird soon joined its sibling on the Washington State Fisheries barge tethered a few feet away.  From that platform I got a great view of them eagerly propositioning their harried parent for something to eat, excitedly flapping their wings with gaping mouths whenever she drew near.

Though the next day was rainy, I came back to the park carrying a longer-lens camera and an umbrella.  I felt fortunate to witness and film the young dippers exploring their brand new world of the upper estuary.  I admired their mother's swimming skills, as she zigzaged at lightning speed beneath the rippled waters tracking and catching small salmon (very kindly just released by Fish and Wildlife into the estuary). She then rapidly knocked the stunned fingerlings upon the river cobble before stuffing them down the babies’ gullets.
On my third visit, I was standing on the wooden footbridge bridge directly over the lower waterfall when a group of students from the Raymond School District showed up.  I had been following the dipper family around the middle falls, then back down to the estuary.   But now, the ouzel chicks seemed perilously perched on a large fallen tree wedged directly above the roaring torrent.  I pointed out the birds to the students, who were enthralled but worried about the babies.  Yet the mites seemed entirely at ease and unafraid.  Mama soon came and fed them, and once again they all moved on.

A dipper’s habitat requirements include the clear, clean, well-oxygenated water that supports its favorite prey.  So, I wonder, how do dippers cope with the raging and silt-laden Deschutes during our periodic great storm events?

Dippers are uncommon residents of Thurston County and elsewhere in their range, which stretches from Alaska, throughout the U.S. and Canadian mountain west and into Central America. Other than Tumwater Falls Park, the only other place in Thurston County that I know they occur is within a picturesque gorge in the upper Deschutes watershed, where a water ouzel was once seen flitting along the rim of a large waterfall.

It seems somehow fitting to me that these marvelous little birds safeguard both ends of the Deschutes.  That these evanescent water sprites, slipping easily between the realms of fluid, air and earth, at once keep the river’s secrets, yet reveal its hidden beauty to any one with the eyes to truly see.

Addition Resources:


A short video of adult feeding a juvenile at Tumwater Falls Park:

Some great videos of American dippers pulled off of YouTube:

American dipper building nest at Whatcom Falls:

Dipper adults feeding babies in nest on Dosewallips River, Olympic Pennisula:

American dipper swimming under water:

Dipper diving into roaring river:

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