by Rex Burress


Up along Spanish Creek, near where it flows into the Feather River west of Quincy, California, there is a delightful stretch of rapid-filled water below the Oakland Feather River Camp. Lush Indian Rhubarb grows along the edge, and on the shore, pines send their spiraled boughs high into the Sierran sky.

Although the American Dipper bird lives around that turbulent water and thrives on the aquatic life clinging to the shifting flow, you wouldn't expect to see a shorebird like the Spotted Sandpiper in such narrow confines. Yet, I saw both species on one small six-foot sandbar, each absorbed with pecking out a larval living in the shallows.

The Senior Camp was to have a breakfast cookout in the area next morning, and I was to comment on nature, so I scouted in the evening hoping to locate any unusual animal presence, or even uncover any potential rattlesnake lairs. Instead, I was the witness to a funny bird spectacle!

Both of the bird species involved were dippers, or bobbers, as they constantly bob up and down in their standing moments. They are the most renowned dippers in the bird kingdom, uncontrollably doing pushup-like exercises as if their life depended on making a show for some reason. Maybe it's written in the genes, because all American Dippers and Spotted Sandpipers bob whenever they get the chance.

I had never seen the two birds at the same time, not to mention both on one tiny sandbar, but they ignored me as I stood on the cliff road looking straight down to the shoreline. They were seemingly infatuated with one another, meeting in the middle to curtsy and bow like an odd couple at a ballroom. Then they would dart to the other side of the sandbar to poke at a few more food morsels.

Then back to the middle, and the sandpiper would sink to the ground with its beak pointed upward in some sort of interaction bordering on courtship gestures. The dipper seemed to ignore this maneuver, although it came to a complete stop as if unsure as how to respond.

There they were, two birds of a different color  the long-legged white sandpiper with curious black spots, and the short-legged, gray dipper - birds with different designs in structure and lifestyles, yet occupying the same niche along a mountain stream as they searched for food. There was no attempt to claim the whole island, but a sharing of a common land as they sought survival.

I watched for 15 minutes, then the sandpiper streaked upstream past the plants, and a few minutes later, the dipper fluttered laboriously to a rock downstream.

There was nothing similar about the two species except in having similar internal blood and biological principles and a desire to eat and maintain the forces of life. Even their beaks and legs were of different lengths, and choice of feeding styles decidedly different. The dipper, or water ouzel as John Muir called it, is a water rat, inclined to boldly plunge into the fiercest rapids and prowl around the bottom, while the sandpiper is neat and delicate, appearing afraid to get wet above the knees.

 If it was by chance that those two birds met, somewhat like the chance encounters of the Senior Campers at Oakland Camp, the occasion was not disastrous for their day. Indeed, it was more of a random meeting with pleasantries and acceptances along the road of life.

John Muir was quite fond of water ouzels, calling them the Hummingbirds of the Sierras. They flutter from stone to stone as if it is difficult for them to become airborne, and often they burst out in a crescendo of song even on icy cold days with storm in the air. They are so fond of their home they have developed special adaptations that almost precludes them from migrating to mild climates. It would seem their minor need for strong wings has headed them toward a flightless life like the penguins.

The certain joy that both the sandpiper and dipper show as they step around the stones and sail above the river are indications that they possess a quality of life worth maintaining. Most birds exhibit that uplifting mannerism that suggests they are proud to witness the particular facet of existence granted them. High on the mountain, or down in the desert, or along the seashore, or deep in the jungles, some bird calls it home and participates in the procession of life. Most are occupied with their own habitat, but sometimes ... an American dipper and a spotted sandpiper meet along the shore ... in either friendliness or fear ... an interaction that contributes to the funny diversities of life.

 © 2000 Rex Burress
July 16, 2000