American Dipper

We are long overdue for a farm update here, and it’s on the list, but bear with us for a brief moment while we gush just a bit about something not fully, though fully tangentially farm-related.

Spearfish now has a sparkly, brand new, bright and colorful mural along Spearfish Creek and the rec path under the Hillsview bridge. The mural is the product of the time, talents, and care of the BHSU mural class and art students, several students from Spearfish High School, Spearfish community members, and a few enthusiastic birder friends. The project was made possible by the generous support of the Spearfish Parks and Recreation Department and with the approval of the Spearfish Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Advisory Board. The mural features, in six-foot-tall glory, an American Dipper. She’s a stunner. This is one part of a 2-wall project, to be completed next spring, a celebration of our wonderous, precious creek, and the diversity of species that also call this place home.

A little ditty on the dipper: the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) is an unobtrusive, joyous, extremely endearing aquatic songbird of clear fast-moving mountain streams. These birds are bluish-grey-black and about as big as a robin, round like a pebble, and have a wren-like tail. Dippers stand on stream-side rocks and bob and dip in a distinctive rhythmic, stand-still dance (I challenge you to watch them without reflexively bobbing your head along with them, yep, go ahead). Then they dive in, they swim(!) (a swimming songbird?? Whaaaat?!!).  Year round, they hunt in the rocks for aquatic invertebrates, caddisfly and mayfly larvae, dragonfly nymphs, fish eggs and worms. When they blink at you, they flash their startlingly, enticingly bright white eyelids.

They build their woven mossy, bark-bits and watery-plant-parts nests close to their stream habitat, often on vertical cliff ledges, behind waterfalls, under bridges (under bridges!).  The northern Black Hills are the easternmost extent of the Dipper’s range with the next closest population 200 km away in the Wyoming Bighorns.  There are probably fewer than 100 adults in the Black Hills, mostly in the Spearfish Creek watershed but also in Whitewood and Rapid Creeks. We’ve seen dippers higher in the watershed, but also as far down as between Jorgensen and Evans Parks. They depend on these clear, unpolluted streams; habitat loss including both water pollution and temperature are of significant concern when considering the dipper’s future.  

Being a small population on the edge of its range and requiring such a specific habitat, the American Dipper (especially our local population) is at high risk from the unmitigated impacts of climate change.

John Muir, a naturalist and philosopher, also loved the dipper. He called them water ouzels. Here’s how he describes the dipper:

“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.”  (from his book, The Mountains of California, 1894)

Where as many species in this part of the country book it south for winter, and others tuck in to hibernate, and others still hunker down, hide in bushes, puffed up and braced against the winter weather, not the dipper. She just goes about her day, no matter the weather. Muir observed that the dipper not only continues to sing through a snow storm, but she sings more loudly than ever and with more astonishing variation of notes. And that she never calls for pity no matter the hard winter weather, “not because (s)he is strong to endure, but rather because (s)he seems to live a charmed life beyond the reach of every influence that makes endurance necessary…. (s)he must sing though the heavens fall.” Dippers are a creature of poetry.

Flowing through the water in the mural, is a band of colored stripes, from left to right they change from primarily blues to, abruptly, bright red. These warming stripes represent 170 years of global temperature change (from 1850 through 2020), based off of a color graph prepared by Professor Ed Hawkins, of the University of Reading. 

In the mural the stripes are illustrated as part of the creek, flowing along with the waves in the water. Climate change is happening and evident here, it’s an issue that we are embedded in. We have both a responsibility for this situation and a responsibility to act on it. Each of us has a role. As farmers, as stewards of this land, we are intimately and increasingly aware of the impacts of these changes and we’re committed to working to minimize carbon inputs, maximize soil carbon sequestration, and making efforts to adapt. The health and future of our planet and communities requires all of us working together; drastic annual emissions cuts and green jobs, climate justice, listening to communities in the frontlines of climate change, voting, long term vision, and immediate collective action.

We are so deeply proud of and grateful for this mural project and the opportunity to engage with students and our community through art and science and a mutual appreciation for this beautiful home. 

To us, the dipper mural represents a woven tapestry, an anabranched stream channel, with threads of creativity and art, research and science, a whole-hearted celebration of native species, habitat conservation and stewardship, our current climate emergency and need for action, the power of collaboration and community, and the contagious, effervescent energy/attention/passion of young people for this amazing place in which we live.

So, when you have some time, mosey on down the rec path and look for the dipper. You’ll find her under the Hillsview bridge, just downstream from the Evans-Tonn irrigation ditch intake (the water source for the farm). And hold tight for the second wall mural coming next spring – this one will highlight some other denizens of Spearfish Creek and the northern Black Hills, including a Northern Leopard frog (Rana pipiens), Townsend’s Big-eared bat (Plecotus townsendii), Mountain sucker (Catostomus platyrhynchus), a Tawny Crescent butterfly (Phyciodes batesii), Caddisfly (species to be determined), a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), of course a Beaver (Castor canadensis), a dragonfly (species to be determined), and the Black Hills Mountain Snail (Oreohelix strigosa cooperi). BHSU art students have each “adopted” a species and will paint a panel with the lil’ critter’s portrait.

Art is a catalyst for conversation and action. How can we work together to engage with climate action? How can we sing though the heavens fall?

For your passerine perusing pleasure, check out Audubon Mural Project, Muir’s Ouzel chapter, and the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies report, Identification and Monitoring of American Dipper Populations and Inhabited Areas in South Dakota (2019).

3 thoughts on “American Dipper

  1. I stopped and took a long look today. I have ALWAYS loved our little Dippers. I really hope Jane will be helping out with this project, so many things… very near and dear to her heart. The earth, birds, bugs and of course art! Thanks Jeremy and Trish. ❤️

    1. Hey there Heather, Thanks for this note! We’re really looking forward to the next wall and we’ll certainly need Jane’s help – YES! Big hugs to all the fab Doerges fam – t & j

  2. trish and jeremy – this is a wonderfully beautiful and educational project. and this page on your website is extremely well written. as an avid birder of almost 40 years i applaud the attention that you are bringing to this threatened species. thanks for you work (i had to search a bit to find the design credit – good job trish and jeremy! carry on

    george prisbe, hanna

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