The songbird that walks and flies underwater

“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.” – John Muir

When I worked as a seasonal hotel employee in Glacier National Park, my attention focused first on mountain sheep and mountain goats, deer and moose, marmots and ground squirrels, and–of course bears. The most striking birds were the ospreys and golden eagles, followed by large flocks of songbirds such as pine siskins. A month went by before I saw a water ouzel, beloved by John Muir, because this bird seems to spend more time underwater than in the air. Imagine resting beside a stream on a long hike, glancing down into the water where–amongst the minnows–you see a dark grey bird walking on the bottom looking for insects and even small fish.

Wikipedia Photo

We consulted George Ruhle’s Guide to Glacier National Park and learned the bird was a water ouzel, now (for reasons I don’t know) more commonly called the American Dipper ( Cinclus mexicanus). Cornell Labs calls the dipper “America’s only truly aquatic songbird,” noting also its thick plumage, low metabolic rate, and molting of feathers (like ducks) every year.

According to Audubon, “This distinctive bird is locally common along rushing streams in the West, especially in high mountains. It is usually seen bobbing up and down on a rock in mid-stream, or flying low over the water, following the winding course of a creek rather than taking overland shortcuts. The song and callnotes of the Dipper are loud, audible above the roar of the water.”

I found the bird fascinating even before I learned later that one of my wilderness heroes, John Muir considered it a favorite. 


Glacier Park Novel

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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