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Water ouzels busy teaching youngsters in eastern Idaho

Living the Wild Life

Living the Wild Life is brought to you by The Healing Sanctuary.

At the LeHardys Rapids in Yellowstone Park, I observed a small dark gray bird that appeared to be pecking a hole in a rock out in the Yellowstone River. As I got closer, I saw the bird was killing a Yellowstone cutthroat trout fingerling. Before I could get a picture of it, the bird fed the fish to its kid, a young American dipper, often called a “water ouzel.”

For the next half hour, I studied two adults as they attempted to teach three young dippers how to harvest, kill and eat different types of water bugs. The most numerous food of choice was the stonefly nymphs, we used to call hellgrammites when we were kids. They also caught leeches and other aquatic insects as they crept along the bottom of the longest undammed river in the contiguous United States.

The parents of these amazing young hatchlings would bury their head into the fast-moving current as they searched the bottom of the river for food. Sometimes the parents would dive into the current and remove a stick or other obstacles to expose the hiding places for the bugs. Then they would encourage the kids to get into the water to catch their own food.

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Cleaning up insect hiding areas in a hunting area. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

After diving into the water, the adults would walk on the bottom with their wings spread out that made them appear as they were flying under the water. Experts report that they do not actually fly under the water but use their outstretched wings to steady themselves as they walk against the swift current.

The parents were very vocal with their youngsters and as the weather is getting a little colder, the kids will have to learn to fend for themselves. They will stay at the rapids year around with the male defending his chosen nesting place. The only things that will cause them to move will be if the rapids freeze over completely or if the river becomes polluted enough to kill the insects.

The dippers are good indicators of water quality as their life depends on the abundance of aquatic insects. Oh, they will occasionally catch and feed on small fish, but they prefer the larvae of large flying insects that also need unpolluted water.

They are also equipped to handle the bitter cold Yellowstone winters. They have a very low metabolic rate with an extra carrying capacity of oxygen in their blood. Their feathers are so thick that water cannot get to their skin, even their eyelids are covered with feathers that are white, which shows when they close their eyes.

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An immature dipper successfully catches a leech after searching the bottom of the river. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

Most swift-flowing streams in the mountains of Idaho will be home to these ouzels. I have watched them on Palisades Creek, the Henrys Fork of the Snake River and along Warm River during the winter. During severe winters when mountain rivers water becomes flowing ice slush, they will move into the portion of the rivers in the warmer valleys. If you find some or visit LeHardys Rapid, take a half hour and watch them, they can be very entertaining.

They are not the only strange birds at LaHardys. The rare harlequin ducks spend the spring, summer and fall at the rapids. Since the male Harlequins have already migrated to the Pacific Coast, the less colorful females along with their babes are preparing to join the males. This will happen soon, but in the next couple of weeks, they can still be seen setting on the rocks and diving for food in the rapids.

Visiting Yellowstone in the fall is one of my favorite things to do with the LeHardys Rapids high on my list to visit. I still love to read the naturalist John Muir’s writings about the water ouzel and other wild things in his many essays and books.

Enjoy the great autumn that we are having – too many years we have a short fall season and we have been blessed with a great one this year. It almost makes the hot summer worth it!!

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An immature dipper capturing an aquatic bug along with some salad. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com
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An adult dipper searching for food at the bottom of the LeHardys Rapids. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com
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