There is a sense that winter is losing her grip, the warmth in the morning sun sufficient to pierce the legacy of last night’s frost. The sky is clear too and the light ideal for photography. There is just time enough on the walk into work to seek out the black-bellied dipper that has been wintering on the river, pulling in the crowds of birdwatchers to the edge of my little patch. It is the presence of these other birdwatchers that spurs me on to visit so early; the selfish pleasure perhaps of having the bird to myself.
The dipper has remained faithful to this one small stretch of the river for several weeks now and each morning I expect it to have gone. It hasn’t though and I am soon crouched close to the bank of a small channel that carries water away from the main river and through a small belt of trees. Just where the channel widens out and deepens slightly into a small pool is where the bird is often to be found. Sure enough the bird is here again this morning, perched on a partly submerged branch and bobbing gently as only dippers can do.
I can feel the warmth of the sun on my back, a welcome feeling given the draining cold of the ground on which I am crouched. The bird is remarkably tolerant of these visits and soon ventures in close, leaving the branch to swim across the water, the head occasionally thrust below the surface as the dipper searches for submerged prey. With a flick of its wings the dipper forces itself below the surface, bouncing back up again with a caddis or some other delight in its bill. Every now and then it blinks, a silver-grey membrane flashing across the eye’s surface; another little detail that is so pleasing to take in.
As a child I always associated dippers with the fast flowing streams and rivers of northern and western Britain. This spot, heavily shaded and with its gentle flow, didn’t appear to fit at first but now seems perfectly suited to this delightful bird. The dark tones of the dipper’s plumage seem to mirror the dark soil of the bank, the wet logs that lie part submerged and the smooth surface of the water, which is reminiscent of deeply polished wood.