The water ouzel was my father’s favorite bird. Sometimes I think it was his favorite because he liked to say “water ouzel.” Try it, it’s fun!
There are five water ouzel varieties throughout the world, and our local ouzel is the American dipper. (Not as much fun to say.) The American dipper is roughly robin-sized and a nondescript dark grey color. As such, they’re rather hard to spot along the Snake River, and I usually only find them four or five times during the summer. In my defense, they do spend time underwater, and our rafts move pretty darn fast. Excuses, excuses.
I work in Bozeman, Montana when I am not rafting the Snake, and I recently enrolled in a Master Naturalist course at the Montana Outdoor Science School. During one of our weekend field excursions, we were breaking for lunch when there was a commotion: one of my classmates had spotted a dipper along Hyalite Creek. We observed the bird for a while and watched as it ran among the rocks, mosses, and shallow pools looking for food and exhibiting its characteristic “dips.” Eventually, it disappeared underwater.
Dippers often travel under the surface of the water, using their powerful grip to turn over small rocks with their feet in a search for little crustaceans to eat. They can stay under for up to 30 seconds, protected from the cold of mountain lakes and streams by their thick oily feathers and an even thicker layer of down. Our little dipper friend finally disappeared, and we went on our way.
On Sunday, I returned to that streamside location to see if I could meet up again with our little feathered friend. No luck. I did hear bird song by the creek, and though I know the dipper is a songbird, I had not educated myself to the song. I hiked for about two hours listening to the birds whose songs I do know, like jays and nuthatches and magpies. Eventually, some bear sign turned me around and I returned to the dipper’s stream, and was rewarded with a 15-minute display as the dipper made its way down the bank, over the rocks and moss, and finally into a slow moving pool. My forest idyll was shattered when a unleashed dog bounded into the creek and scared the dipper away.
Ouzels are very cool. Their underwater abilities are legendary, aided by nictitating eyelids that help with their underwater vision and protect their eyes. If they are alarmed, they can flash their brilliant white eyelids as a warning to other ouzels – like a quick blast of morse code. They are year-round residents, but will migrate downstream from frozen mountain streams to swifter flowing waters during the winter. They build a moss outer shell around their nests to absorb water and keep the interior dry. Like other birds, the young are born featherless but Ouzels are able to swim soon after they hatch. The parent birds mate for life but in an unusual twist, the male and female split the brood and split the territory during the period when the young are growing, before reuniting once the chicks fledge.
I think I now know why my father liked the water ouzel so much. On the steeply descending Snake River, we have just seconds to see and identify a bird or animal. But the slower pace of foot travel allows us to experience streams in a different way. My father spent his childhood tromping around Jackson Hole with a fishing rod in his hand; in later years, he lazed along the river in a driftboat as a fishing guide. Long before he founded Barker-Ewing Float Trips, Dad was spellbound by our glorious Grand Teton National Park. He was a keen observer of nature, attuned to the smallest changes in the river environment, and was the kind of person who could find joy in simply sitting still on the riverbank, watching the dip and dive of the water ouzel.