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Steamboat Magazine

Taking the Plunge

07/15/2016 11:50AM ● By Dan Greeson

A dipper, or water ouzel, searches for food in the rushing waters of the Yampa River. Photo by Douglas Wipper.

By Douglas Wipper and Dan Greeson

The Yampa River is home to a host of masterful boaters and kayakers, but the most skilled water-navigator might not look like much at first glance. Disguised as a drab, stubby, mild-mannered bird, the American dipper can transform into a powerful, agile aquatic hunter – just add water.

The dipper – or water ouzel as it is sometimes called – is found on clear, fast-flowing mountain rivers along the spine of the Rocky Mountains from Alaska down to Central America. It can be easily identified by its unusual habit of standing on mid-stream rocks or shorelines and “dipping” or bobbing its body repeatedly into the rushing water. At a mere seven inches long, dippers are stocky and stubby-tailed. Their charcoal-grey bodies are contrasted with bright yellow feet. The dipper’s wren-like ”Zeeet!“ call can be heard over the sounds of the Yampa year-round.

The dipper feeds primarily on aquatic insects and their larvae. It has the ability to dive underwater and, with its remarkably strong legs and wings, snatch its prey from the rocks and gravel beds of shallow streams and rivers. 

When a dipper dives underwater to feed, its transparent outer eyelid closes and scales seal its nostrils, effectively closing off its head to harmful elements and allowing the bird to hunt with lethal precision.

Dippers diligently build their nests near the flowing water using aquatic plants and moss. These hut-like nests are assembled under rock shelves, tree roots, bank undercuts and low bridges. Dippers lay three to six eggs in a nest and use a side entrance for their constant comings and goings. 

Look out for ouzels on the Yampa, in town, year-round – they never migrate. They can be spotted during spring, winter and fall, when the Yampa has less human traffic and the birds can forage for food in peace. 

The presence – or absence – of water ouzels can be a good gauge of a river’s health as the birds only live on watercourses with robust ecosystems.

We need to be cautious in our use and vigilant in our care for the Yampa to protect this rare and special songbird for many years to come.

Watch as a dipper hunts for food in the waters of the Yampa River