Growing up in the south of England, I didn’t get to see my first dipper until I moved to Ireland in my late 20s. And what a bird to be missing out on! It may be small, but it has bags of character and a dapper appearance. Its lifestyle is also unique among our passerines, or songbirds. All good reasons to make the dipper my October bird of the month.
Dumpy but Dapper
European dippers are small, slightly rotund birds with an almost wren-like shape. They get their name from their habit of frequently bobbing up and down. No one is entirely sure why they bob, or dip, in this way. It may be to signal to other dippers, it might be to make them harder to see by breaking up their outline or it might be to help them see their aquatic prey better. They have short wings and a short tail which adds to the round appearance. Their brown heads and grey-black backs contrast with a white throat and breast. This white gives rise to one of their other common names, the white-throated dipper. Birds in the UK have a chestnut band below the white. All species of dipper have a conspicuous white eyelid, seen when they blink.
Juveniles are a dark scaly grey and have a white throat but no chestnut belly marking. The subspecies found in the north and west of Europe also lacks this chestnut band. It has a black belly instead and this feature is something to look out for as they do occasionally turn up in the UK. Unlike our subspecies, this black-bellied dipper is migratory to a certain extent. Off course birds tend to be recorded in eastern counties or Shetland in the winter.
Not Your Average Songbird
As songbirds, the five species of dipper found around the world are unique in their semi-aquatic lifestyles. They search for a large proportion of their invertebrate food in water, often walking into it from rocks in or next to fast-flowing streams. Once submerged, they use their short wings to effectively fly through the water. They also fly and land directly on the water to then dive down if feeding on larger rivers. Dippers don’t have webbed feet despite spending so much time in water, but they do have some other useful adaptations.
They have dense plumage and are able to waterproof it from a large preen gland. In addition, as well as nasal flaps which stop water going up their nostrils, they have a third eyelid, known as a nictitating membrane. This helps them see clearly underwater. High levels of haemoglobin in their blood allow them to store more oxygen when they dive.
The Norwegian name for the dipper, their national bird, is the ‘fossekall’. This means ‘call of the waterfall’, a lovely name for a bird usually found by rushing upland streams. In the UK this is its usual habitat, although you can also see it sometimes by lowland streams and rivers, including some urban areas, such as Bristol. During colder winters, if upland streams freeze, birds will move further downstream to find running water. During the breeding season the dipper builds its nest close to water, sometimes on rock ledges or under bridges. Once they leave the nest, youngsters are able to feed themselves after a week or two, leaving their parents free to start a second brood.
Mixed Fortunes for the Dipper
In conservation terms, the dipper is classed as of least concern across Europe which means that the species is still abundant. There is positive news in the UK, as well, in that dippers can now be seen in many urban centres where they had been absent for decades. This is largely a result of the end of high levels of certain pollutants entering our river systems in the former industrial heartlands of the country. As rivers like the Tees have been cleaned up and invertebrates have returned, dippers have too.
However, the picture is not entirely rosy. The old pollutants of the industrial revolution have gone, but new ones have arrived. Microplastics in our water are also a potential problem for dippers in the long-term. Rural populations, though, are causing the most concern in the UK, with the BTO recording an overall decline of 30% since 1970. Causes vary depending on location but include river acidification due to pollution and the presence of intensive poultry farms adjacent to rivers such as the Wye. Run-off from these units leads to a huge increase in phosphate levels in the rivers, which in turn reduces oxygen levels, killing aquatic life. This includes the caddis fly and mayfly larvae that dippers eat. We have done so much good work cleaning up our rivers over the last few decades, but risk undoing all that work with newer practices and deregulation.
In the UK you can see dippers in the southwest of England, north of the Midlands, in Wales and much of Scotland. It is absent from the south and southeast of England and East Anglia. Unlike that other jewel of our waterways, the kingfisher, it prefers fast-flowing, well-oxygenated streams and rivers. Although it has now returned to many urban centres, including Bristol, Sheffield and Burnley, its spiritual home is the upland stream. Places like Dovedale in Derbyshire and the Spey in Scotland give you a real sense of this little bird’s semi-aquatic lifestyle. Find a vantage point on a bridge over a suitable river and you have a good chance of being rewarded with a sighting of this incredible species. You may even be lucky enough to hear its scratchy little song over the rush of the water.