Photographing White-throated Dippers in their icy habitat

WasseramselWhite-throated Dippers (Cinclus cinclus) are at home on clean streams in the middle and high mountains. Even without having seen it, you will recognize that the petite bird occupies its territory here by its whitish remains on certain stones in the stream bed. Like no other songbird at least in Europe, the White-throated Dipper has adapted to life on and in the water. On a stone in the middle of the creek the dipper hopes excitedly and watches the water. Suddenly the bird disappears headfirst with a jump between the waves. Using the wings like little oars, it manages to even swim against the current and reach the bottom of the creek where she clings to a stone with her powerful claws. Literally going under the water, repulsing from stone to stone, she begins to rummage through the stream bottom for aquatic insects, especially larvae. After some time it shoots out of the water like a champagne cork, uses the energy, jumps out of the stream and lands on a rock. The White-throated Dipper regularly wets her plumage with oily secretions from a gland under the tail feathers that allow her to remain “waterproof.”

In June 2004, I spent several weeks in the Bavarian Forest National Park, visiting clear rivers and larger streams to help the White-throated Dippers with their raging tides, preferably ice and snow, foraging, fighting or courtship to take pictures.

February is the perfect month to photograph white-throated dippers in territorial disputes or courtship. Winter is the time for the birds to find a partner. In these months, one can easily observe a male in courtship-expression – singing on a rock in the middle of a stream. Purpose is the attraction of a female, but also the defense of their own territory. The males often go to the same place; It is therefore important for the observer to locate it in order to choose the ideal location for a hide, the camouflage tent.

Once the couple have found each other, they start building the nest, which in any case is a location in the immediate vicinity of the water. A nest behind a waterfall is certainly an impregnable fortress that protects its inhabitants from predators such as ravens, rats and weasels. If there is no waterfall, the White-throated Dipper can set up their dwelling in a crevice or under an old bridge. Some road builders are already thinking along and designing new bridges in such a way that the White-throated Dippers can find a secure niche even in new construction bridges. Sometimes the chosen location proves to be unsuitable.

Last winter, for example, I spotted a pair of White-throated Dipper building its nest in a snowdrift that had been deposited by the stream. These parents had to look for a more suitable stay at the first annual dew. The breeding season lasts about sixteen days. When the young birds, on average the clutch-size is four, hatch, depends on the altitude. In the 800m section of the creek where I took my pictures, most of the pairs of birds started feeding the cubs at the end of April. Surely this is the best time to photograph this rather shy bird species. A well-established hideout usually allows you to shoot some good images. However, take care when photographing the White-throated Dipper during the delicate phase of raising the young. For example, not all birds tolerate the presence of the hide near the nest. If the adult White-throated Dippers are reluctant to approach the nest to feed the young, it is better to set up the hide at a greater distance or to find a less suspicious pair of birds. Three weeks after hatching, the youngs leave the nest. The young White-throated Dippers are easy to recognize: their plumage is light gray and the white breast is not recognizable yet. The young birds stay near the nest, protected by the bank rocks. Still unable to fly, they are extremely vulnerable. However, you should not be fooled by the appearance here. In case of danger, the youngsters would not hesitate to throw themselves in the water. Even before they have learned to fly, they can already swim well.

Hidden in a small camouflage tent, I spent hour after hour documenting the life of this extraordinary aquatic acrobat. Most of the time, I watched a pair of Dippers that had set up their nest behind a small waterfall. During the feeding period there was a lot of coming and going here. The bird parents repeatedly fly through the water wall with their prey in their beaks – an ideal photo opportunity. It was not easy to catch the moment of breaking the waterfall in the photo. The bird is extremely fast: I had to select exposure times up to 1 / 4.000 sec to hold the birds in flight. Another problem was the focus: to focus during the approach is impossible. The autofocus will fail given the small and fast motive on the irregular background. Better results can be achieved by focusing beforehand on the point where the White-throated Dipper would break the waterfall. Failure is naturally high. But it works best. Finally, the exposure: Even the balance between the white of the splashing water and the black plumage of the bird proves to be difficult. This has not been an insurmountable obstacle since the advent of digital recording technology and Photoshop.

The White-throated Dipper is located on numerous rivers and streams both in the lowlands and in the mountains. However, the White-throated Dipper is also a demanding species: it only chooses clear and unpolluted watercourses as a habitat. In the Bavarian Forest you can find them in all altitudes and in the Alps you can find them in layers up to more than 2,200 meters asl. Well protected by dense plumage and the rich layer of fat, the White-throated Dipper seems immune to frostiest temperatures. Several times I have observed white-throated dippers that dived for food under a thick layer of ice. So I discovered them in the still snow-covered area of ​​the Northern Cape in June on a partly icy stream, which had more icicles than running water. It is always amazing to see how well the tiny bird can assert itself in the raging stream.

To cope with the growing demand for top shots of the rarer species of the Palearctic Bird-Lens is keen to enrich the range of pictures of birds you can find in the western Palearctic. Trips to remote places to capture images not only of rare birds of western Palearctic were very successful. The nice image of the blog is only a first impression, what you will find in the gallery in the “Picture Shop” very soon. Just give a message, if could serve you with an image needed before the new pictures are online.

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