Sunday 19 January 2020

Country Matters: Bird that dips and dives under water

WATER BIRD: Irish dipper Photo: Birdwatch Ireland
WATER BIRD: Irish dipper Photo: Birdwatch Ireland

Joe Kennedy

The search was for caddis-fly larvae under the moss-covered rocks in the shallow part of the river where it eddied into a breakwater.

In the middle where two steams conjoined there is a deep pool where a large cannibal trout with ferocious jaw had jumped as if to survey what might be disturbing from the world above. In spite of many attempts with different baits, no one succeeded in tempting this denizen of the deep to snap at a hook. Anyway, 'salmo ferox' was all head and teeth, only suitable for mounting on a pub wall, sceptics said.

The caddis was regarded as a sure lure for brown trout. The larval casing, like a piece of pebble, was carefully prised open to reveal a soft creature within to be carefully threaded with hopes of tight lines from cloudy 'freshes' after heavy rain. A can of worms, however, might have been more productive.

Caddis-fly larvae are eagerly sought also by a little-noticed, delightful water bird seen at weirs and where water falls to shallow pools through rocky channels.

This bird is more earnest than any angler in its searching, walking about under water, like a deep-sea diver, poking under stones. It is called a dipper (cinclus cinclus hibernicus) and it nods and bobs while perched on rocks as if acknowledging the watching world with little gestures of courtesy.

'Gabhan dubh uisge' is dark brown, plump and short-tailed with a conspicuous white throat, looking like an oversized wren. When it blinks its eyelids reveal a striking white to match its dazzling breast. The Irish bird is a sub-species of the race found in Eurasia and America, the other Celtic family members in western Scotland and the Isle of Man also being darker with a duller belly-band. English birds have chestnut bands between white breasts and dark rear under-parts.

It is not web-footed yet this remarkable bird leaps and plunges into water to search for food, walking among submerged stones, using wings to propel, holding on by powerful claws to avoid being swept away. Apart from caddis, mayflies, stoneflies, small fish, crustaceans, molluscs are snatched. Freshwater shrimps would do nicely, thank you. Water temperatures are not a problem. The naturalist Mark Cocker watched a dipper feeding at ice-fringed water and being blown across like a skater. It tipped in 30 times and "on each occasion re-surfaced with caddis-fly larvae whose outer cases were flicked off by a few deft blows before it readied itself for the next Arctic plunge."

Dippers favour faster flowing water nearer coasts rather than midland sites. I have not heard many local names for them: in Mayo they may be called water crakes. They began to moult last month and may be flightless for a time. They never move far from their own territory and may roost in groups in quiet places under bridges, the fledged young returning to sleep in the old nests. The birds begin nesting in February, building their football-shaped homes in riverbanks, crevices and, once seen, the boot of an old car in a Tyrone river. A regular reader saw them at the Boyne weir at Slane last Sunday, "fabulous birds, walking under fast-running water".

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