Nature News from GYE # 49

May 2023

Sandhill Cranes with young (called colts)
photo from the International Crane Foundation

Today, May 10, and I am finally seeing some of the winter stressed grass in my small yard. Lots of snow still covers everything else, however. Despite that spring is in the air.
Sandhill Cranes are returning from their winter haunts. This is the time of year we often see a pair standing in the snow wondering if they arrived too early! They wait it out however and many find nesting spots here.

Mountain Bluebirds have returned as well. They are such a sign of spring, many of us announce to each other when we have seen our first of the season. It is a reason to celebrate. Below you’ll see the male Mountain Bluebird on the left and the female on the right. These photos are taken from the National Park Service website.

On my way home today along the upper Gallatin River, I stopped for a walk and had the delightful experience of watching an American Dipper (formerly known as the Water Ouzel) in Taylor Fork Creek. Dippers live near fast flowing streams in mountains. These birds love clear, cold water. They are often found in mountainous areas, but sometimes, in higher latitudes may be along streams through level country, even near sea level. In winter, Dippers may move to streams at lower elevations, sometimes moving into narrow creeks or slower-moving rivers, but we still see them along many of the rivers in Yellowstone throughout the year. These birds are adapted to cold swift moving rivers and streams. They have muscular wings for flight as well as help them “fly or swim” under water. Their strong legs and toes give them a firm grip on the slippery stream bottom and they have a thick down coat along with extra feathers to insulate them in the cold water.
Dippers dip! Meaning they are frequently seen doing “deep knee bends” on rocks close to the of these swift moving rivers.

American Dipper taken by Pat Musick

Why do dippers dip?
 I’ve read and heard a few different explanations about dipping dippers but a couple sound most plausible. Some say dipping helps the birds sight prey beneath the surface of the water. I’ve also read that the dipping motion, along with flashy white eyelids, could be some way of communicating among American dippers in their very noisy environment.
Dippers hunt for their prey underwater. They may walk with only its head submerged, or may dive, “flying” underwater or walking on the bottom, probing under stones in streambed. They may hunt along the surface as well. Yesterday the Dipper I was watching was picking insects from streamside rocks.

Typical American Dipper nest
photo and much of the info taken from American Audubon

They typically nests along streams. It could be small ledge on mossy rock wall just above stream, among roots on a dirt bank, or behind a waterfall; often placed where the nest remains continuously wet from flying spray. Many nests today are built under bridges that cross mountain streams. A nest (probably built by female) is a domed structure about a foot in diameter, with a large entrance low on one side; made of mosses, some of them still green and growing, often with some twigs, rootlets, or grass woven in.

Both parents feed nestlings. The young leave the nest at about 18-25 days, and are able to swim and dive almost immediately.

The American Dipper was John Muir’s favorite bird….It was then called the Water Ouzel. I have included below a small segment John Muir wrote (who did visit Yellowstone in 1903, by the way) about the American Dipper

“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.


If distrubed while dipping about in the margin shallows, he either sets off with a rapid whir to some other feeding-ground up or down the stream, or alights on some half-submerged rock or snag out in the current, and immediately begins to nod and courtesy like a wren, turning his head from side to side with many other odd dainty movements that never fail to fix the attention of the observer.

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.

The nest is one of the most extraordinary pieces of bird architecture I ever saw, odd and novel in design, perfectly fresh and beautiful, and in every way worthy of the genius of the little builder. It is about a foot in diameter, round and bossy in outline, with a neatly arched opening near the bottom, somewhat like an old-fashioned brick oven, or Hottentot’s hut. It is built almost exclusively of green and yellow mosses, chiefly the beautiful fronded hypnum that covers the rocks and old drift-logs in the vicinity of waterfalls. These are deftly interwoven, and felted together into a charming little hut; and so situated that many of the outer mosses continue to flourish as if they had not been plucked. A few fine, silky-stemmed grasses are occasionally found interwoven with the mosses, but, with the exception of a thin layer lining the floor, their presence seems accidental, as they are of a species found growing with the mosses and are probably plucked with them. The site chosen for this curious mansion is usually some little rock-shelf within reach of the lighter particles of the spray of a waterfall, so that its walls are kept green and growing, at least during the time of high water.


Such, then, is our little cinclus, beloved of every one who is so fortunate as to know him. Tracing on strong wing every curve of the most precipitous torrents from one extremity of the Sierra to the other; not fearing to follow them through their darkest gorges and coldest snow-tunnels; acquainted with every waterfall, echoing their divine music; and throughout the whole of their beautiful lives interpreting all that we in our unbelief call terrible in the utterances of torrents and storms, as only varied expressions of God’s eternal love.”
The Water-Ouzel, John Muir

Dippers are singing, snow is melting, days are longer and spring is tempting us to believe seasons keep turning.
Thanks for continuing to keep your interest on the pulse of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Here’s to longer days and the song of the American Dipper


below is a neat video you might enjoy about the dipper

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