I previously mentioned the problem I have with answering the question of what my favourite bird is, I said that the question was not specific enough and my favourite duck species was the Pintail. Now another bird that can easily be classed as one of my ‘favourites’ is the Dipper or Cinclus cinclus.
The Dipper is a very unusual passerine (song-bird) and is quite unlike any other bird; the only thing I can liken it to is a Penguin crossed with a Wren. This dumpy fellow lives exclusively along streams and rivers, and in Britain is restricted to the rocky uplands of the west where the streams are to its liking. The Dipper eats invertebrates much like other passerines but it gleans these not from twigs – but from stones under the water. Much like a Penguin the Dipper is quite at home in the cold stream water; it uses its wings to propel itself and grasps stones and boulders with its feet to hold its buoyant body under. As an adaptation to its novel way of feeding it has a thick layer of feathers that hold air bubbles, this air not only insulates the bird but if it needs to return to the surface it need only let go of the stream bed and it pops up.
Many times on walks along moorland valley streams I have seen the distinctive rotund shape of a Dipper whizzing along; its wings blurred in flight like a Wren or Puffin. It would perch on a rock in the middle of the stream and bob its comical body up and down as though it were on springs (this behaviour is also seen in wagtails and the reason behind it is still unclear – but it may be a form of communication – like semaphore, sort of). I recall seeing one hunting in a still pool at the side of a river; at first I thought it was a water vole or a rat as it is difficult to become accustomed to seeing a bird swimming like a seal! If you get a good view of this bird you will see that it is more than black and white; its white breast patch is of a shocking ‘Daz’ purity, its belly and head is a melted-chocolate brown with a hint of red, while its slightly scalloped wing and back feathers resemble a Ring-Ouzel.
If you are lucky enough to locate a Dipper nest (as I once did on a Lake District river) you are sure to be impressed by the workmanship and size of this construction. Both parents build the pumpkin-sized dome of moss, leaves and grass under a bank or bridge or tucked into a fallen tree and will raise 4 to 5 young within its cosy walls. If you are ever in a pub quiz or playing trivial pursuit and are asked what the national bird of Norway is – you need only reply Dipper! In Britain we have our own subspecies of Cinclus cinclus, which differs in the colour of its belly, as I previously mentioned it is only found in the west of the country – this is due to it being sensitive to water pollution. It’s prey, composed of mostly dragonfly, damselfly or stone-fly larvae are much reduced in rivers with any type of pollution, this obviously affects the Dippers who feed on them, so the crowded and fertilizer – riddled rivers of the south-east are hardly suitable.
If you are yet to see this remarkable and charming bird then I would encourage you to take a holiday in Wales or Devon as soon as you can, as it is not a bird that should be missed.