Monday, September 19, 2016

American Dipper: John Muir's Water Ouzel

So beloved was the Water Ouzel to John Muir, he devoted an entire chapter of his 1894 book The Mountains of California to describing its life history.  And the Water Ouzel, now more commonly called the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) certainly is an enchanting and unique little bird, the only aquatic songbird in North America.  Not only does this bird sing a beautiful song, but it also dives in rapids and waterfalls, even in the cold of winter, and can be found in the Sierra Nevada year-round.
Water Ouzel, or American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) in Arnot Creek, near the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River
 I will let John Muir himself describe the Ouzel, as his description is superior to mine:

"THE waterfalls of the Sierra are frequented by only one bird, --the Ouzel or Water Thrush ( Cinclus Mexicanus , Sw.). He is a singularly joyous and lovable little fellow, about the size of a robin, clad in a plain waterproof suit of bluish gray, with a tinge of chocolate on the head and shoulders. In form he is about as smoothly plump and compact as a pebble that has been whirled in a pot-hole, the flowing contour of his body being interrupted only by his strong feet and bill, the crisp wing-tips, and the up-slanted wren-like tail."
Water Ouzel, with a tasty aquatic insect
I have seen Water Ouzels twice in the past two summers, and both times they have been along rapid streams, as expected, bobbing, dipping and plunging its head into the water in characteristic Dipper fashion.  In California, the Ouzel is at home in coastal streams, the forests of the northwest, and even southern California streams, as well as the Sierra. 

Muir goes on to describe the close association the Ouzel has with clear, cold, rapidly flowing water. 

"Among all the countless waterfalls I have met in the course of ten years' exploration in the Sierra, whether among the icy peaks, or warm foot-hills, or in the profound yosemitic cañons of the middle region, not one was found without its Ouzel. No cañon is too cold for this little bird, none too lonely, provided it be rich in falling water. Find a fall, or cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream, and there you will surely find its complementary Ouzel, flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained, and neither seeking nor shunning your company."
Water ouzel, insect in beak.  Note the long pinkish legs and unwebbed feet.
The American Dipper feeds on aquatic insects and their larvae, swimming, diving, wading, even moving rocks on the bottom of streams to expose prey.  They also eat worms and small fish and their eggs.  Dippers build woven nests close to their stream habitat, often on cliff ledges or boulders, behind waterfalls, even under bridges.  They depend on clear, unpolluted streams, and water pollution is of concern when considering the Ouzel's future.
Because he is a favorite of mine, and because his writing is so beautiful, I will leave you with one more tidbit from John Muir, in which he captures the essence of the Water Ouzel in near poetry, as is his way.
"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. For both in winter and summer he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells. While water sings, so must he, in heat or cold, calm or storm, ever attuning his voice in sure accord; low in the drought of summer and the drought of winter, but never silent."
All quotes taken from The Mountains of California, Chapter 13, by John Muir, 1894