The Dipper Cinclus cinclus or to be more exact the White-throated Dipper, is one of the most fascinating bird species that you can see in Assynt.
Dippers are a resident bird in Assynt but they will undertake short range movements in very hard winters to more coastal areas. Other parts of the UK occasionally get winter records of the Black-bellied form (C.c. cinclus), these are birds coming from the continent.
Between Wheatear and Redwing in size Dippers are very much a bird of one habitat – fast-flowing, stony-bedded streams and rivers, so quite at home in Assynt. The fact that they can be seen beside, on and under their habitat is perhaps the reason for the fascination!
They feed mainly on aquatic invertebrates in the river bed, particularly the larvae of caddisflies. Hence their adaptations to be able to swim on, and under the water, and also to walk on the riverbed by gripping the stones, which they also turn over with their beaks in the search for food.
Most of their food is consumed under the water but you can often see them with a caddisfly larva in their beak as they surface. Any material that can’t be digested is regurgitated as pellets.
Try putting your hand in the River Inver water for around 10 seconds during winter to help understand why Dippers, and ducks, etc. need to have a dense layer of insulating downy feathers.
If you sit and watch Dippers as they stand on a rock in the middle of a river or on the bank the most obvious action will be the bobbing of their body. This is often accompanied by a downward flick of the tail and a flash of their white eyelid, also known as the nictitating membrane. They use this membrane as a means of communication or warning as the noise from the water can often mask their call. This membrane also protects the eye under the water.
You might hear a Dipper before you see it. Their call is a penetrating almost metallic ‘zitzit’ and they often deliver this while flying rapidly from one perch to another. Both sexes sing, with the male having the more melodious version, and the song can be sung even in the coldest of winters.
These photographs were all taken on 5th December 2018 as four birds moved about near the bend of the River Inver opposite Little Assynt Tree Nursery. A text book location for Dippers with a gravel bed, mid-stream and shore-side rocks as well as spots to sit, rest and watch the neighbours!
While our Dippers are widespread and an indicator of good water quality they can be affected by acidification of the water flowing through conifer plantations or by poor river management/development decisions.
Dippers then are a bird for all seasons, one to be enjoyed when you do come across them but not to be taken for granted; how true is that of all of our amazing wildlife.
David Haines (words and photos)