Finding the American Dipper at 60 MPH

The American Dipper is one of North America’s most enigmatic birds, most often observed along fast-flowing mountain streams in the west. It often poses on rocks in the middle of the stream or river before jumping in and fully submerging underwater and somehow manages to walk and cling to the stream bed collecting and eating aquatic invertebrates with ease. They truly are one of our most entertaining birds to watch.

On my recent trip to Montana (June 2022), I was lucky to be able to watch at length a pair of Dippers that my guide Steve Huggings found as we hiked one of the trails at Pine Creek Recreation Area in the mountains south of Livingston. The pair had a nest nearby and it was fun to photograph them at length as they would fly back and forth collecting food for their young. Often after feeding the chicks they would drop off the fecal sacs nearby and feed very close to our vantage point. After obtaining hundreds of images on my camera I realized I could video the birds on my iPhone and was able to get some fantastic footage as they preened and fed nearby in the picturesque mountain stream.

Eating breakfast the next morning I discussed the plans for the day with Steve. I mentioned that I’d love to have another chance at photographing Dippers, Steve, of course, wouldn’t guarantee it but said there was a chance as we would be driving past areas with mountain streams and rivers which of course is the dippers habitat. However, our main goal of the day was to photograph birds at the tree-line high up in the mountains above the ski town of Big Sky so we wouldn’t really have time to stop and search intensively.

Driving south of Bozeman towards Big Sky on US Highway 191 in a line of traffic traveling at 60mph with the raging Gallatin River to our right, Steve suddenly exclaimed “We need to turn around, I’m not 100%, but I’m pretty sure I just saw a Dipper sat on a rock in the river!” So turning around at the next available intersection we headed back. Amazingly as we pulled up at the trailhead parking at Deer Creek Steve exclaimed that it was indeed a Dipper and it was still there in the same spot. How he saw a bird of that size as we traveled at 60mph I’ll never know but sure enough there it was.

My breakfast request had been granted. For best photographs with the light behind us we needed to be on the same side of the river as the highway, traffic was extremely fast and busy but luckily we were able to photograph safely from behind the safety barriers. While watching the Dipper Steve noticed an adult Bald Eagle perched up on the spruce trees on the opposite side of the river. Soon the Dipper moved and flew across the river to another spot close to the trailhead bridge. From this vantage point I was able to again photograph the Dipper as it preened and sang its beautiful song. Again, I also filmed the bird, the traffic noise was a pain but still I think you’ll like it.

Bald Eagle

I’m still amazed at how Steve found that Dipper at 60MPH…