07 July 2012

An American Dipper - Cinclus americanus

During a short sojourn at the junction of the north and middle branches of the North Fork of Feather river, in Plumas county, I was told of a remarkable bird which frequented the streams in that neighborhood, and which, from the account given me, I suspected to be the American Dipper (Cinclus Americanus) of Audobon[sic.]. My curiosity was greatly excited, and I determined to see the bird, if possible. For this purpose I set out in company with my informant, on a walk up the north branch. We had passed but a few rods up the stream when, to my gratification, we discovered one of the birds in question. It was a moment of intense interest to me, and the opportunity afforded me of observing the habits of this remarkable specimen of ornithology, of which I had read, but never expected to see, was gratifying in the extreme. I watched it for near half an hour, as it walked, swam or flew along the banks of the stream or the rocks that lay embedded in its rapid current. It seemed to gather its food — probably insects — from the rocks in the stream, generally dipping its head or bill only in the water, though frequently plunging its whole body under and darting through it for a distance of two or three feet. I did not see it making any long plunges, which it is said to do, but which the shallowness of the stream may, in this instance, have prevented. But it seemed to select the shallow places, where, perhaps, is found, the greatest abundance of food. It seldom swam more than a few seconds at a time, either under the water or on its surface; but its movements in either case were made with astonishing celerity, and reminded me of certain bugs which we often see darting about on pools of still water.

But the most remarkable circumstance concerning this bird is the apparent contradiction between its conformation and its habits. Its feet are not webbed, but the toes are divided like those of ordinary land birds; nor it there anything in its appearance or form that would give the slightest indication of its aquatic habits. It has a certain vibratory motion of its body, resembling more the hasty spasmodic curtsey of an awkward girl than anything else I can compare it to, and is accompanied at the same time by a slight bobbing of the head and tail. Its notes is a sharp, clicking chirrup, which it uses when commencing its sharp but rapid flights. There is little or no melody in it. In color its head and neck are a chocolate-brown; its upper parts a very deep bluish gray; lower parts lighter, and tinged entirely with brown. It is six or seven inches long, and about ten inches in the extent of its wings from tip to tip.

These little birds are by no means infrequent on the rapid streams of the wild cañons of the Sierra Nevada mountains, where they make their home during summer and winter. We saw seven or eight of them during this single excursion. They were very gentle and fearless of man, and I sometimes approached within twenty or thirty feet of them.

J. L.
September 4, 1858. Daily Alta California 10(243): 4. From the Daily Bee.

This is the first, and thus-far the only known, newspaper article which refers to the dipper. It is wonderfully descriptive and expressive! Too bad Mr. J.L. did not use his proper name, or he could be truly known for his distinctive place in the chronicles of historic ornithology.

There are — of course — numerous other known records of this species in the region during the 1850s, but issued in other sorts of publications.