Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Super Dipper Day

 On Thursday afternoon, April 11, I finally got up Agency Creek to see how the American Dippers are doing. My intention was to hike in from the beginning of Agency Creek Rd. to the first nest area and then have Johnny pick me up at the road another half mile beyond. But it was such a nice day and it had been so long since I was up there, that I, with Johnny's help for part of it, ended up surveying all 6 1/2 miles.

The first trek was the toughest, through trail-less brush and downfalls. A Dipper heard me crashing along before I saw it and gave a warning call. The first photo is when I heard it scream disapproval of my passage. This is just a bit downstream of the nest site.

I did not see the Dipper, so hiked on upstream to where I could see the rock wall where they nested the last two years. I'm always amazed at that sheer cliff that seems to appear out of nowhere.

I saw no Dippers at the nest site, but plenty of evidence they've been hanging out there, so I'm pretty sure they've started nesting. The passage from there to a road where I can hike out to Agency Creek Rd. is much easier from the rock wall onward, as the firs take over from the hardwoods and brush plus deer have very nice trails from that point onward. I hiked on out to the road and kept walking upstream. At the gravel pit, a pair of Hooded Mergansers paid me little heed. The pair I had startled on Agency Creek had not been so calm, nor had the female Common Merganser on another part of the creek.

Although we rarely see Dippers at Three Stumps, as it is known locally, I could not resist clambering down the steep bank to the spot where generations of kids have jumped daringly into the deep water, some from the top of  a tree leaning over the creek. A little less intimidating is the rope hung from the high platform on that tree where kids swing out over and drop into the freezing water. You can just see the rope hanging down in the first photo.

In the next photo, you can see the rope with the platform high above that kids jump from. I hope my kids never did but I don't ask. There's no way to know if the water below is deep enough. I guess if kids survive, it must be. Most do.

 Upstream from Three Stumps is The Chutes. Between the two is the next Dipper nest site, a torturous hike from the road. I tried to approach quietly but crunched a dead stick under my foot at just the wrong moment and a Dipper screamed below me. I never saw it. It must have been very near to me and to the nest site, which is across the creek in the photo below. It was nice to know the nest site territory was occupied, but I was starting to wonder if I was going to actually see any Dippers that day.

I fought my way back to the road and headed upstream. Johnny showed up in the van but I kept walking. He drove ahead and parked near the mysterious milepost 3 area, where we always see Dippers, but had not... until this day... found a nest. Johnny saw a Dipper on a rock near the bridge but it disappeared before I arrived. As usual a rock in the middle of the stream was covered with white splats that show a Dipper or Dippers hang out there. Last year, we saw two young Dippers feeding themselves from this rock and environs. We did not know if they had fledged somewhere close by or had moved in from an adjacent territory.

 While Johnny hiked up a side road to listen for grouse, which we usually hear drumming this time of year, I clambered about checking the same areas I've checked in the past without luck. But this time I hit pay dirt. The Dippers had built a nest in an impossible location... under the bridge that has no ledge for building on. Although it looks like a ledge in the photo, that is actually a steeply angled slope.

After I discovered the nest, I backed way off and a Dipper appeared on a rock nearby. A second appeared and then disappeared under the bridge. The guard Dipper acted agitated when I moved to reach the van.We left quickly before disturbing the bird any more.

So that makes nest #7 in the 6 1/2 miles of Agency Creek that I survey.

The next nest site has birds that are accustomed to humans in their area, since people used to camp there. That area has now been blocked off with boulders and planted with trees, but people still go down to fish. Yet this pair was already nesting when we first checked the area this year. And on this day, two juvenile Dippers, already feeding themselves, were in the area while two adults stood nearby. Here is a youngster, lighter than the dark adults.

The adults soon flew a short distance upstream, toward the known nest site. One disappeared while the other landed on its usual guard rock. Apparently, they are working on a second brood already.

From hearing but not seeing Dippers at the first two nest sites, we had suddenly seen six at the next two sites. Things were looking good.

But try as we might, we could find no Dippers at the following two sites, both right by the road. We almost never miss finding a Dipper at Asinine Bridge, so wondered where they might be. On we went to the last known nest site and found that Dipper on his guard rock, as expected. Seven Dippers was not a bad haul for one afternoon. And, to add frosting to our cake, a Ruffed Grouse drummed loudly for us at this last stop.

We drove slowly back and, as luck would have it, a Dipper had reappeared at Asinine Bridge. A little downstream was his probable mate. They must have been off foraging when we were there, so maybe not nesting yet this year. Just before reaching the next site, we saw a Dipper and then another just below that nest site, for a grand total of 11 Dippers for the day... and every one of the known territories occupied by Dippers either heard or seen. A super Dipper day indeed!

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