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The Dipper

The White-throated dipper Cinclus cinclus, is one of my favourite birds. This is largely due to fond memories of riverside walks that were always enriched by the sighting of a dipper, bobbing up and down on a rock or plunging into the flow. These aquatic songbirds have a preference for clean, fast-flowing water, and this can lead the photographer to some beautifully wild locations.

When possible, I like to photograph subjects reasonably close to home so I was really pleased when I discovered a pair of dippers nesting on a little river not too far away. I visited the site several times during early spring hoping to learn more about the birds and their favourite resting places, looking for tell-tale droppings on the rocks.

It was April before I first went with the camera and it was nice to find the birds busy around the nest site, clearly getting ready for breeding and the arrival of chicks. I did not want to disturb the dippers near the nest so I decided to target the male who was flying downstream to feed.

As with many other species, dippers are wary of people, especially those following them up and down the river! The technique I use is to locate an area where the birds are often seen and get into position while they are not around. I try to stay as low to the water as possible; using rocks or vegetation as cover and camouflage netting to conceal myself and my gear.

Once in position, the dippers will continue with their activities, paying little attention to the strange clicking thing at the water’s edge; often venturing too close for a telephoto lens. I continued to visit the site and it soon became clear that the pair had bred successfully as both adults flew back and forth with beakfuls of food. Typical of dippers, the nest was built into a crack in the rock beneath a waterfall about two meters up, reducing the risk of flooding and predation.

A piece of driftwood had settled in the pool below the waterfall at the edge of the deeper water where it joined the main flow and occasionally one of the birds would land on it to check for danger. I decided this would make a nice picture and fortunately the position of the wood meant that I could shoot from some low rocks beside the bankside vegetation and out of the dippers way.

The changeable light at this location was a bit of a challenge but it did allow me to make a varied portfolio of images. I would try to arrive early, especially on brighter days, when light from the rising sun would flood up the river valley towards the waterfall. Dippers have dark brown plumage with a white breast which can make exposure tricky during bright conditions.

On this morning I was in place well before the first light sparkled in the fast water.

Lying flat on the rocks I had just enough room to use my tripod at its lowest setting and framed the scene to show the waterfall beyond the driftwood perch. The dippers were up early too and after several fly-bys one of the adults landed in the perfect spot, bathed in golden sunlight.


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