There is no better study of Dipper than that of Richard Jefferies.
When he visited Exmoor in the summer of 1882, Jefferies soon fell in love with the sweeping expanses of heather moors and the rocky, bubbling streams which supported a variety of wildlife. This short piece is a close-up study of the water-colley, more commonly known as the dipper.
“The sweet grass was wet with dew as I walked through a meadow in Somerset to the river. The cuckoo sang, the pleasanter perhaps because his brief time was nearly over, and all pleasant things seem to have a deeper note as they draw towards an end. Dew and sweet green grass were the more beautiful because of the knowledge that the high hills around were covered by sun-dried, wiry heather. River-side mead, dew-laden grass, and sparkling stream were like an oasis in the dry desert. They refreshed the heart to look upon as water refreshes the weary. The shadows were more marked and defined than they are as day advances, the hues of the flowers brighter, for the dew was to shadow and flower as if the colours of the artist were not yet dry. Humblebees went down with caution into the long grass, not liking to wet their wings. Butterflies and the brilliant moths of a hot summer’s morn alight on a dry heated footpath till the dew is gone. A great rock rising from the grass by the river’s edge alone looked arid, and its surface already heated, yet it also cast a cool shadow.
By a copse, two rabbits—the latest up of all those which had sported during the night—stayed till I came near, and then quietly moved in among the ferns and foxgloves.
Walking through the grass, and thinking of the dew and the beautiful morning sunshine, I scarcely noticed the quantity of cuckoo-flowers, or cardamine, till presently it occurred to me that it was very late in the season for cuckoo-flowers and stooping I picked one, and in the act saw it was an orchis—the early purple. The meadow was coloured, or rather tinted, with the abundance of the orchis, palest of pale pink, dotted with red, the small narrow leaves sometimes with black spots. They grew in the pasture everywhere, from the river’s side in the deep valley to the top of the hill by the wood.
As soon as the surface of the river was in sight I stood and watched, but no ripple or ring of wavelets appeared; the trout were not feeding. The water was so low that the river consisted of a series of pools, connected by rapids descending over ledges of stones and rocky fragments. Illumined to the very bottom, every trout was visible, even those under the roots of trees and the hollow of the bank. A cast with the fly there was useless; the line would be seen; there was no ripple to hide it. As the trout, too, were in the pools, it might be concluded that those worth taking had fed, and only the lesser fish would be found in the eddies, where they are permitted by the larger fish to feed after they have finished. Experience and reason were all against the attempt, yet so delightful is the mere motion and delicate touch of the fly-line on the water that I could not but let myself enjoy that at least. The slender lancewood rod swayed, the line swished through the air, and the fly dropped a few inches too high up the rapid among the stones—I had meant it to fall farther across in the dark backwater at the foot of the fall. The swift rush of the current carried the fly instantly downwards, but not so quick as to escape a troutlet; he took it, and was landed immediately. But to destroy these under-sized fish was not sport, and as at that moment a water-colley passed I determined to let the trout alone, and observe his ways.
Colley means a blackbird; water-colley, the water-blackbird or water-ousel—called the dipper in the North. In districts where the bird is seldom seen it is occasionally shot and preserved as a white blackbird. But in flight and general appearance the water-colley is almost exactly like a starling with a white neck. His colour is not black or brown—it is a rusty, undecided brown, at a distance something the colour of a young starling, and he flies in a straight line, and yet clumsily, as a young starling does. His very cry, too, sounds immature, pettish, and unfinished, as if from a throat not capable of a full note. There are usually two together, and they pass and re-pass all day as you fish, but if followed are not to be observed without care. I came on the colley too suddenly the first time, at a bend of the river; he was beneath the bank towards me, and flew out from under my feet, so that I did not see him till he was on the wing. Away he flew with a call like a young bird just tumbled out of its nest, following the curves of the stream. Presently I saw him through an alder bush which hid me; he was perched on a root of alder under the opposite bank. Worn away by the stream the dissolved earth had left the roots exposed, the colley was on one of them; in a moment he stepped on to the shore under the hollow, and was hidden behind the roots under a moss-grown stole. When he came out he saw me, and stopped feeding.
He bobbed himself up and down as he perched on the root in the oddest manner, bending his legs so that his body almost touched his perch, and rising again quickly, this repeated in quick succession as if curtsying. This motion with him is a sign of uncertainty—it shows suspicion; after he had bobbed to me ten times, off he went. I found him next on a stone in the middle of the river; it stood up above the surface of a rapid connecting two pools. Like the trout, the colley always feeds at the rapids, and flies as they swim, from fall to fall. He was bobbing up and down, his legs bent, and his rusty brown body went up and down, but as I was hidden by a hedge he pained confidence, suspended his curtsying, and began to feed. First he looked all round the stone, and then stepped to another similar island in the midst of the rushing water, pushing his head over the edge into it. Next he stepped into the current, which, though shallow, looked strong enough to sweep him away. The water checked against him rose to the white mark on his breast. He waded up the rapid, every now and then thrusting his head completely under the water; sometimes he was up to his neck, sometimes not so deep; now and then getting on a stone, searching right and left as he climbed the cascade. The eddying water shot by his slender legs, but he moved against it easily, and soon ascended the waterfall. At the summit a second colley flew past, and he rose and accompanied his friend.
Upon a ledge of rock I saw him once more, but there was no hedge to hide me, and he would not feed; he stood and curtsied, and at the moment of bobbing let his wings too partly down, his tail drooping at the same time. Calling in an injured tone, as if much annoyed, he flew, swept round the meadow, and so to the river behind me. His friend followed. On reaching the river at a safe distance down, he skimmed along the surface like a kingfisher. They find abundance of insect life among the stones at the falls, and everywhere in shallow water. Some accuse them of taking the ova of trout, and they are shot at trout nurseries; but it is doubtful if they are really guilty, nor can they do any appreciable injury in an open stream, not being in sufficient numbers. It is the birds and other creatures peculiar to the water that render fly-fishing so pleasant; were they all destroyed, and nothing left but the mere fish, one might as well stand and fish in a stone cattle-trough. I hope all true lovers of sport will assist in preserving rather than in killing them.”
My own study of Dipper over the years is reminiscent of the observations of Richard Jefferies, and of W H Hudson; I too have followed them to the edge of their territory only to see them double back to their starting place. No riverside walk felt complete without seeing one or hearing their rather plaintive “peep peep”.
I have sat quietly watching them for hours near a favoured waterfall and on one memorable occasion I was able to watch them feeding underwater in a clear pool. Their song reminiscent of a rippling stream is somewhat similar to the Whitethroat – with lots of buzzes and churring interspersed with the up and down cadence of their thin warbling. On a quiet sunny summers afternoon to sit by the river and listen to its song is one of life’s pleasures.
Wherever I have lived there have been Dipper – on fast flowing Dartmoor streams, to birds on the tidal stretch of the river at Cothele in Cornwall, and on the upper stretches of the River Fowey, Bodmin Moor nesting under the bridge which gave access to my uncles farm; to meandering lowland rivers at Midford near Bath; on a tiny brook in a bit of cleared forestry at Greyfields Timsbury, close to where I was born and lived for the first seven years of my life, to here in North Wales, where I have seen them on the outflow of the river into the tidal race near the Spinnies and Penrhyn Castle, the edge of Llyn Padarn, and many mountain streams.
A fitting end to this post is an account of Dipper by Viscount Grey of Fallodon, in his 1937 book ‘A Charm of Birds’.
‘The dipper or water-ousel is the most certain January singer, for even the hardest weather does not silence him. When the woods are hushed and white with snow, and the burn is pinched by frost, so that only a narrow dark channel of running water shows between the ice and snow at the side of it, there on some stone in the burn the dipper will stand and sing. It is water rippling over a stony bed that he frequents; the soft luxuriance of a chalk stream has no attraction for him. His song seems part of the sound of the rippling water, from which he is never away. “I hear thee where the waters run” may well be said of the dipper. His song is very sweet and lively; it has no marked beginning or close, but goes on indefinitely. It is as if ” beauty born of murmuring sound” had passed into the bird who was giving it back as song to the stream whence it had come. I reckon that there are two pairs of dippers each with its own length of the little burn at Fallodon; and where a burn is narrow and the banks upstanding, one can approach close to the sound and listen with pleasure and with admiration of the birds’ hardihood. Of this hardihood I had experience in the first week of a certain memorable March in Sutherland. Blizzard followed blizzard; feet could make but slow progress through the snow; wheels could not travel except where passage had been cut by man through the drifts, on a small section of road, and even this was blocked again by fresh blizzards, that obliterated man’s puny efforts. The frost was intense ; the river was frozen from bank to bank, except where the swift current kept some open water at the head of pools. Wild life was helpless: sheep had to be searched for and dug out of snowdrifts: grouse in trouble and despair flew in bewildered packs about the white hillsides. At a little height above the river my friend and I were slowly making our way on foot through the deep snow. From an unfrozen stream below there came up to us the sound of a dipper, singing its full song, undeterred by the conditions that were distressing all other life, unaffected by the cold, undismayed by the desolation. It was another moment when the song of a single bird penetrates to the affections and abides thereafter in the memory’.
Image Credit: The featured image of Dipper is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Credit: The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland, Princeton University Press, 2013.
In writing these notes I’ve drawn extensively on the resources of the Richard Jefferies Society in particular the Blog of of Dr Rebecca Welshman and Simon Coleman who have already done much of the transcription of Jefferies writings enabling me to reference quite long passages without having to copy type from the original text of his books and essays. Thanks.