On a recent trip to Mull, I was lucky enough to spot a dipper and spend some time watching while it splashed around vigorously on a semi-submerged stick. It was so engrossed that I managed to get close enough to get some video footage. I rarely manage to take video, as I only have an (ancient) iPhone, and I need to be very close for anything to be clearly visible or worth sharing, so I was pleased to get the clip to share with you.
Dippers are one of my favourite birds, they are so distinctive and have made some remarkable adaptations to maximise the benefits from their chosen habitats. They are fairly common in the UK, with around 6,000-18,000 breeding pairs, and there are many places to see them. They are uniquely adapted to their habitats, and although some of the locations may be out of the way, if you know the dipper’s requirements you can always keep an eye open. The habitats of preference for dippers are fast flowing, fresh water streams and rivers, usually with mature trees nearby.
Dippers are distinctive in appearance with dark backs, wings and tails, contrasting with a bright white bib. They are wren like in shape with a jaunty cocked tail, but they are larger at about 18cm long. Called dippers because of the bouncy, bobbing motion they make while perching, often on a rock. In fact, a rock near or in the water with white droppings on it, is a good sign that you are in a dipper’s habitat.
Dippers tend to fly along watercourses, almost exclusively over the water itself. They use very fast wing beats and stay close to the water’s surface. They are solitary in nature. When I have seen them in the past it has usually been a glimpse of something dark moving fast over the surface of the water which draws the eye, then if I have been lucky, it will stop and bob briefly on a rock nearby, before submerging or flying off further up or downstream.
Dippers have some unique abilities and physical traits which allow them to maximise the use of their watery territory. While some sea birds dive into water to hunt, and penguins can swim supremely well underwater, the dipper masters both of these techniques, and also, incredibly walks along stream beds in currents of fast flowing water. They do dive into the water, but also simply walk into water until submerged and keep walking along on the hunt for food. Dippers are also able to fly through waterfalls to find safe nesting spots or food sources behind the watery curtains.
The Dipper has solid bones in its lower limbs, unlike the hollow bones of most other avian species, and these help it to stay submerged. Another amazing evolutionary adaptation are the dippers eyes, which have developed the eye muscles to modify the shape of the lens for improved underwater vision. Dippers are also able to store more oxygen in their blood which allows them longer periods of time submerged; they are true specialists.
Dippers like fast flowing fresh water. Good water quality is essential because they eat small larvae, crustaceans and fish, which do not thrive in polluted environments. The presence of dippers can therefore indicate the health of an ecosystem.
I saw this one on Mull, a Scottish island in the inner Hebrides, when I was back visiting family over the Christmas period. I grew up in Tobermory*, and wanted to take my children to the loch where my brother and I spent a lot of time as kids. Aros loch is just outside Tobermory, in Aros Park. The park is Forestry Commission owned and is well worth a visit for the beautiful trees, amazing waterfalls and walking paths.
I have observed dippers in several Scottish locations including the River Kelvin near Kirkintilloch, at Braklinn Falls in Callander and the River Nevis in Fort William. There is plenty of suitable habitat in Scotland and I always look forward to spotting one. If I do manage to take any further footage I will share here and on my social media channels (links in sidebar).
*(Yes, Tobermory is the same place Gordon Buchannan, the famous wildlife cameraman grew up…….. his list of ‘species observed in the wild’ is probably slightly longer than mine…..and I think he probably also has a better camera… )
Bailey, Bill. Bill Bailey’s remarkable Guide to British Birds, (pocket Version), (2018) Quercus
Hume, Rob. Birds of Britain and Europe, the definitive, photographic field guide, 5th ed (2018) DK, RSPB.
RSPB website: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/dipper/