Monday, February 7, 2011

Searching for Splats

We live on Agency Creek. Upstream we reliably see American Dippers (pictured above) here and there along the rushing, boulder-strewn stream that parallels, in many areas, Agency Creek Road. I have often wondered just how many Dippers have territories on Agency, where those boundaries are, and where the birds nest. I thought perhaps some graduate student might someday do research on the Dippers in the Oregon Coast Range and would like me to survey Agency Creek. But then I realized that, as much as I love all my bird surveys, I hate the paperwork. Research projects always come with paperwork. They need it for data analysis. So... the solution is to do it myself for myself in my own way. And that's just what I've been doing.

I elected to start as far up Agency Creek as the road follows the creek, which is about 6 1/2 miles from the beginning of Agency Creek Road, a road that starts about 1/4 mile from our farm. My end point is our farm. We rarely see Dippers on our portion of the creek as it does not have as favorable habitat as upstream... we're on the flats: Dippers like mountains.

Dippers are not the only ones who like this stretch a few miles upstream: it is a favorite swimming hole for the locals.

So far, I have spent five strenuous afternoons (before and since my Black Oystercatcher survey week) bushwhacking along the creek, cataloguing splats. I have worked my way downstream to within 1/2 mile of our farm, with Johnny dropping me off at my starting point each day and picking me up again when I'm too tired to continue. Although the stream is lovely, there's not much of it I can access easily. Here is what some of the areas I fight my way through look like.

My view of the creek is often through a veil of branches.

Dippers are songbirds that live entirely on streams, dipping up and down (and splatting) on boulders and rocky shorelines before diving into the current to walk along the bottom gleaning insects and other small edible items from the stream floor. They are amazing birds able to keep their footing with their clawed toes in a current that would knock a person down. There are splats on these rocks in the midst of the rapids. Dippers love this sort of area. And they are not even as big as robins.

Wherever the splats are most plentiful is the area the birds spend most of their time foraging... and is, I'm hoping, closest to their preferred nest site. That has been the case with the two nest sites I already know about. Dippers tend to reuse their nests. One I've been watching for five years.

Here's a Dipper posing with a splat. But I don't need to see the birds to know they've been there. In their favorite spots, it's quite obvious... (And, no, "splat" is not an official term: it just seems to fit.)

These little gray birds love to sing wherever the rapids are noisiest. Their song is long and melodious, somewhat like that of a Mockingbird. Happily for me, late January and February, when I've been surveying, seems to be prime singing time for Dippers as they attract mates, establish and guard territories, and, who knows?, perhaps just sing because they love making music together with the stream. Dippers are said to mate for life but their life isn't very long (longest known record is 7 years) so they not infrequently find themselves looking for a new life partner.

Here is a pair of Dippers that I found yesterday, on my most recent trip upstream. I'll be back to their territory in April, hoping to find them feeding nestlings.

Not only Dippers live along the creek, of course. A pair of Common Mergansers grew quite tired of me, I'm sure, as they frequented the same stretch of creek I did every day I surveyed.
Pacific Wrens are common and seem to pay me little attention. This one I nearly stepped on.

A Belted Kingfisher kept me entertained one day, screaming whenever it flew. Whether it was screaming at me or not I don't know.

And, of course, there are all those unseen creatures that have come before me, leaving their prints in the mud and their trails for me to follow through the woods. (Once in awhile, those trails are good, like this one.)

I am, perhaps, happiest when I am exploring the world of rushing water and wildlife... even though I'm usually getting scratched and muscle sore in the process. But I also happen to think that it is important to find out how many American Dippers are in this area now and if their numbers go up or down. Like Black Oystercatchers on the coast, Dippers are barometers of the health of our waterways. If the shellfish become unhealthy to eat, the Oystercatchers will tell us. Likewise if stream biota quality diminishes, the Dippers will suffer. And, ultimately, so will we.

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