For me, the dipper is one of those frustrating birds which, although the species does occur in Wiltshire at the very eastern edge of its range, I have only ever seen it in other parts of the UK. It is a bird of the tumbling rocky streams that are found in the more mountainous areas of the western British Isles. Here in Wiltshire the By Brook around Castle Combe and Box is apparently a good place to see it, though I have always been unlucky! Not so in Devon, where this picture was taken on the East Lyn river in the gorge just above the village of Lynmouth, where a short walk up the riverside path from the carpark almost guarantees a sighting if you have enough patience. It is a very nice walk anyway – culminating in a refreshing cup of tea at the beauty spot of Watersmeet if you have the time to spare.
Possessing the delightful scientific name Cinclus cinclus, dippers are rather odd little birds that feed by diving into the torrent and hunting the crustaceans and molluscs that inhabit the sparkling clean water of these rocky streams. As well as diving and swimming dippers can actually walk along the bed of the river while hunting their prey. They have a piercing call that penetrates the sound of the water rushing over the rocks, and fly low over the surface with rapid wing beats in a very similar fashion to kingfishers. The difference is, being predominantly brown and black with a white breast, they are not as obviously visible as the brilliant kingfisher.
Nests are made in rock crevices or holes close to the water, and they don’t mind making use of human edifices such as stone walls and bridges if the opportunity arises. Once, by watching the birds carefully, I found a dipper’s nest in amongst the pipes carried across the river under a footbridge over the East Lyn, and then watched the parent birds feeding their young for a while. The adults seem quite unconcerned by the presence of people, which makes them easy to see once you have found them, but they are not very big birds and can easily hide amongst the boulders. Look out for the white splashes of their droppings on the rocks – a sure sign that dippers are about. Their bobbing gait and bouncing white breast as they move is also a good thing to watch for.
Written by Mike Smith, Ornithologist for Ivel Valley