The little Dipper

I was the last of our group to spot this bird. Dev and The Family were the first, The Young Niece and the Lotus also spotted it soon after. The excited Young Niece pointed it out to me, and gave fairly precise directions for where to look. I was looking right at it without spotting it. Only when it moved did I realize that this was a bird and not a piece of stone. It was a most peculiar bird, as Simon and Garfunkel could have put it.

It was wonderfully camouflaged against the bubbling water created by the small waterfall which splashed on to the rock where the bird was standing. It looked into the water as if deeply pondering an enigma, and then dipped its head underwater and held it there for a long time. It looked like it was foraging under water. I didn’t see it actually dive; the water was too shallow. I’d never seen a bird like this before. So I phoned a friend, and Nosh provided the definitive lead, “That looks like a dipper.” I’d never heard of them before, and when I looked up a book I found why. There are only two species of dippers in India, both of them up in the mountains. This one seemed to be a juvenile of the brown dipper (Cinclus pallasi, subspecies tenuirostris). The bird was definitely hunting; it mainly eats fish and larvae of caddisflies. They are not endangered but rarely seen in India, because their large range overlaps out borders in a very narrow geographical region.

It was only when I started reading that my vague feeling about how strange this bird was began to take on a definite shape. More than a century ago, in 1905, the high noon of zoology, Leonhard Stejneger, a famous naturalist, wrote a very readable account of these species for the Smithsonian Institute. He says “As a [songbird] with the downy covering and diving facility of a water bird, the dipper certainly is an anomaly,” and then goes on to give his reasoning why these birds (there are only five species of them) should be placed with the thrushes rather than wrens. Interestingly, modern molecular phylogeny techniques agree. The two papers are separated by more than a hundred years, but, using totally different techniques, come to the same conclusion: that dippers are most closely related to thrushes, and that they probably arose first in Asia.

Modern genetic techniques add the information that the dippers probably differentiated about 4 million years ago. Interestingly, the climate of that era is close to the greenhouse that our planet is likely to become in a few decades! The subsequent global changes in climate allowed the bird to first migrate to the Americas, and then split into separate species. In fact, present day evidence indicates that in the past ice ages, these birds were restricted to small areas of the tropics where they differentiated into the multiple sub-species that we see today. What an amazing lifer! I come across so many species new to me just because I’m a complete beginner.

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.


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