Wednesday, 25 March 2020

A CONSOLATION OF BIRDS

Cinclus, cinclus of the family Cinclidae.

An onomatopoeic name that evokes fast-flowing mountain streams - and a bird that lives by and in them, the dipper. 

When I lived in Cumbria I would often see a dipper along the Caldew.  It would give itself away by standing on a rock in the middle of the water, a dark brown bird with a prominent white bib like a waiter's dickey.  In Welsh one of the names for the dipper is Bronwen y Dwr (white breast of the water - the water, not the land or the sky).

A dipper would bob up and down and then take off upstream, above or under the water.  As I walked the riverside path I would see it again - and again - ticking off watery boulders as it went.  On bitterly cold mornings I wondered how it could survive on the meagre pickings of under-stone insect larvae, obtained by repeated dives into icy water.

In spring I might see a pair of birds but never more.  I have always thought of dippers as solitary birds, and I've read that their fiercely-defended territory can extend to as far as two miles of upland stream.

* Why am I writing this now?  Because while the tumult of the latest media reports of corona virus roar around us there are small refuges which can save our sanity.  One such refuge was last week's series of The Essay on BBC Radio 3. 'Higher Thoughts and the Meaning of Welsh Mountains'.  Jon Gower's soft lilting Welsh voice and heightened poetic prose were at their best on Wednesday night (18th March) when he talked about the Brecon Beacons.

With the help of ornithologist, Stephanie Tyler,  he visited a winter roost of dippers, sleeping huddled together for warmth under an old bridge.  What happened next is truly magical - you can listen to the whole programme at

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000gcbr
(you can copy and paste this into your browser bar)

[Spoiler alert]
Stephanie quietly placed a sleeping dipper on the palm of his hand.  The bird opened its eyes and unafraid ... started to sing its intricate warbling song.  A very special moment.

Google 'YouTube dipper singing' for some recordings of the dipper's song.

* My plan is to keep this blog a virus-free zone in the future as far as possible.




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