Photographing White-throated Dippers in Beaufort
After photographing marmots, badgers, and various birds, and seeking in vain for deer and chamois, we decided to go with André Callewaert to photograph a bird which is almost a myth for some photographers: the white-throated dipper, Cinclus cinclus.
Our guide Philippe Rigolio discovered a dipper’s nest on the bank of a small river which flowed through the village of Beaufort. The nest contained three chicks, which were being fed by the parents. Without Philippe’s help and expertise, we would have been unable to locate the nest. We hid under a green and grey tarp on the bank of the river so that the parents would not see us. Our cameras were equipped with 200-400mm lenses and 1.4 converters to increase the focal length. They were fairly heavy, so we used tripods.
The sun was shining, which made it very hot under the tarp. The open side of the nest was to the east, and the sun was gradually moving into a position where it would interfere with our photos. It was not going to be an easy session. Beside the difficulty with the sun, the dipper is a very fast bird, and the parents were trying not to show the nest to predators by sitting there too long. They were not making it easy to take photos of them.
We arranged rotations so that no one would be under the tarp too long. We each spent an hour under the tarp, then moved and let the next person in. We would each get 2 turns under the tarp. It was already very hot under there, and even if it had not been, we would have had to stop before noon, because the light would be too strong to take good pictures.
The white-throated dipper seems mythical to some people because it is very difficult to find. It only lives on the banks of fast flowing rivers in rocky and steep places. These conditions are usually found at high altitudes. A mating pair needs a stretch of riverbank over half a mile long. Because they have such large territories, dippers can be very hard to find. They feed on larvae and small fish in the water. They do not have webbed toes, but they swim very well. When hunting, a dipper will stand on a rock or branch in the middle of the river, often swinging up and down with its tail pointed up. When it spots something to eat, it slips beneath the surface of the water, grasps the bottom with its strong feet, and simply walks around underwater. Sometimes it even ‘flies,’ using its half-open wings to propel itself. After its dive, the dipper will often float down the river for a short distance before emerging. Its soft, dense plumage provides good insulation in the water. It also hunts small insects on land.
During the mating season, the male and female fly high above their territory to engage in a courtship ritual. Then, they stay together for one year. Dippers are usually seen alone or in pairs, but in winter several birds will sleep together for the night in some sheltered place, often under a bridge.
At the end of the morning, we found that our photo shoot had been successful. We each had about 200 photos. We were certain to have at least 10 good ones each. We had reached our objective. When we returned to the car, we were happy and excited. It is unusual to observe dippers feeding their young. We had had another beautiful, happy day in Beaufortain. The week we spent there was a lucky one. We knew to make the most of it. Life is beautiful.