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The Dipper or Water Colley – A Study in Black and White

The Dipper is a bird of fast tumbling mountain and moorland streams - I’ve seen them on the rushing waters of Devon and Cornwall moors, the Staffordshire moors and Derbyshire Dales; the mountain streams and lakes of Snowdonia, and on tidal stretches of Welsh and Cornish rivers - the Ogwen and Fowey. But I knew it best on a little lowland brook - the Cam - meandering through a pastoral landscape near Bath.

The Cam started life as springs in the Mendip Hills draining in an easterly direction through Camerton, and Combe Hay, joining the Wellow Brook at Midford, becoming the Midford Brook, and finally flowing into the Bristol Avon. Dominated by the limestone of the Mendips, a combination of clay soils and steep periglacial valleys cause the brook to be a relatively reactive spate river. Good for Trout, Eel and Stickleback. Home to Kingfisher, Sand Marten, Grey Wagtail. And Dipper.

I used to play in a small tributary of the Cam rising near the village of High Littleton - only a stones throw from home in Timsbury. And it was here in Greyfields that I saw my first Dipper, feeding young at a nest under a mossy bank.

I came back to the brook, like a long lost friend, in my late teens and spent much time revising for my ‘A’ Levels’ along its banks near Midford. Though I think I spent more time watching Dipper than revising! Sitting quietly I would watch them for hours near a favoured weir and on one memorable occasion - in late Spring - I watched them feeding underwater in a clear pool. My study all the richer having read Richard Jefferies’ account of Dipper on Exmoor ... .

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. ... 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. ...

... The 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 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 gained 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.

On a quiet sunny summers afternoon sitting by the river listening to its song is one of life’s pleasures – living in the sound of the river - the ripple, splash and murmur of water running so clear among the rocks lures me to rest on its green banks - the sun, the water-song lifts me up to the clouds - I drift away ...

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The Song of the River

The snow melts on the mountain
And the water runs down to the spring,
And the spring in a turbulent fountain,
With a song of youth to sing,
Runs down to the riotous river,
And the river flows on to the sea,
And the water again
Goes back in rain
To the hills where it used to be.
And I wonder if Life's deep mystery
Isn't much like the rain and the snow
Returning through all eternity
To the places it used to know.
For life was born on the lofty heights
And flows in a laughing stream
To the river below
Whose onward flow
Ends in a peaceful dream ...

From the Song of the River - William Randolph Hearst

 

‘Peep Peep’ - a black and white bird rounds a bend in the river and alights, bobbing and winking, on a rock midstream, opposite to where I was lying ... a Water Ousel or Dipper.

But the best time to watch Dipper is in Winter. On a cold winter's day when few birds are singing, the bright rambling rippling song of a dipper by a rushing stream is always a surprise - the song of the river embodied - somewhat similar to the Whitethroat – with lots of buzzes and churring interspersed with the up and down cadence of their thin warbling.

 

 

Dipper sing in winter because that's when the males begin marking out their stretch of water, they're early breeders but they may hold territory throughout the year. Edward Grey wrote of him thus …

... 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]n 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.

A Charm of Birds - 1937 - Viscount Grey of Fallodon
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