Monday, 3 December 2012

The wandering water-ouzel

On the south-east edge of Thetford stands an aged bridge; it is stone-built, strongly arched and full of character. No longer used by traffic, other than of the pedestrian kind, the bridge is partnered by a more modern construction a few metres to the south over which the main road now runs. It is here that the Otters are sometimes sighted and it was here, just a fortnight ago, that a wandering ‘water ouzel’ put in an appearance. ‘Water ouzel’ is an old name for the Dipper, a bird of the bubbling, fast-moving rivers and streams of the north and west of Britain.

Other than a few local or altitudinal movements to escape the worst of the winter weather, British Dippers are sedentary in their habits and unlikely to stray into the flatlands of Eastern England. This suggests that the individuals which turn up in Norfolk are likely to have arrived from overseas, most likely from Scandinavia. Usefully, most of these longer-distance visitors are ‘Black-bellied Dippers’, distinctive in appearance and belonging to a different race to the one which breeds in the west of Britain.

Reminiscent of a thrush or a rather solid and chunky looking Robin in structure, the Dipper is a dark-coloured bird, deep brown across the upperparts, with a white chest. In size it is similar to a Starling. The belly has tones of warm chestnut in the British race, while in the black-bellied race it is black or dark brown. This is a bird of character, not least for its ability to feed underwater, probing between submerged boulders and pebbles in search of aquatic invertebrates. The compact body shape, coupled with strengthened bones, no doubt aids the bird as it battles against the current and its own buoyancy.

The Dipper has a tendency to make small bobbing movements when perched, like tiny curtseys, something that is reflected in the name. These add to the character and I always feel a flush of excitement when I watch a Dipper. It is a bird that lives on the margins of two different worlds, a bird which swims and dives but which can also take to the air.

Much of the river along this section appears unsuitable for a visiting Dipper, being deeper and slow-flowing, but there are a few places along its length where the water flows over stony shallows providing feeding opportunities. Whether or not the bird will spend the winter here is unclear and it may be that it moves on to seek out more favourable conditions elsewhere. While it has been present it has attracted a good deal of interest from local birdwatchers and even the local dog-walkers have been talking about the bird and the crowd it has drawn.

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