American Dipper ‘Bird of the Day’ at Cimarron State Park

“Look,” Barb said softly and pointed at a branch in the Cimarron River as it flowed through the Tolby Day Use Area in Cimarron State Park, one of the sites in Birding Hot Spots of Santa Fe, Taos and Northern New Mexico.

“A dipper!” I exclaimed with quiet glee.

American Dipper

American Dipper

For a long time, the American Dipper was my New Mexico nemesis bird – always seen by my birding companions when I took a break from searching and visited the restroom. Finally last winter, one strayed to a drain in Corrales and I was able to observe it under some over-hanging branches. As we drove through Cimarron Canyon the day before, I had commented to Barb that since the Cimarron River was a good location for them, perhaps it would no longer be my nemesis.

This chunky song bird, prefers swiftly moving streams and rivers with a rocky bottom and over-hanging shrubs that provide cover for it. It also likes the cover of bridges, which provides also provides protection for its woven grass nest.

While there were some trailers in the nearby campground, there was no one else around to obscure bird sounds. Barb had initially been attracted by the sound of an irritated Song Sparrow in a shrub next to the bridge into the campground.

I took another picture – this time capturing its blinking white eye lid.
We moved around to another angle to watch it.
“It sounds like it is singing, but I can’t see it open its mouth,” I commented. We both watched it for a while – enjoying the opportunity to study it.

“It is singing,” Barb finally said. “I can see its throat pulse.”

The dipper sings year-round and its song reverberates over the sound of the rushing water. The following recording was found on <a href=”“>xeno canto. Naturalist John Muir talked about its song in his 1894 book The Mountains of California, saying that its “music is that of the streams refined and spiritualized. The deep booming notes of the falls are in it, the trills of rapids, the gurgling of margin eddies, the low whispering of level reaches, and the sweet tinkle of separate drops oozing from the ends of mosses and falling into tranquil pools.”

We finally left to explore the fishermen’s trails along the river.
Mountain Chickadees called from the trees, but not much else. As we circled back to the parking area, a Belted Kingfisher chattered as it flew back and forth, and then finally finding a good spot to perch.

We checked in on the dipper again. It had moved into a branch that was stuck in the culvert under the bridge. We watched as it dipped its head (giving it its name) under the water seeking aquatic insects. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, it often ducks its head into the water as many as 60 times a minute. The following picture, which appears double-exposed, captures this movement.

American Dipper feeding

American Dipper feeding

We ate our lunch at the Palisades Picnic Area across from the spectacular palisades cliffs.

palisades cliffs - Cimarron State Park

palisades cliffs – Cimarron State Park

Before long a Steller’s Jay flew into a nearby tree watching us, then up to a limb almost above the picnic table. I threw a red grape onto the ground nearby to see if it might be interested. It immediately flew down, grabbed it, and flew into a tree to savor it.

Steller's Jay

Steller’s Jay

And, then it was back again. Since grapes are not easily cached, I wondered how many it would want – it finally maxed out after 10 – 12.
While our total species for the morning was only 15, the American Dipper was definitely the ‘bird of the day.’


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