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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Take a trip to see the dipper

The dipper is believed to be the only song bird to feed under water

ELAINE Anderson, a renowned source of local nature knowledge, keeps me up to date with much of the information I have overlooked.

This month she tells me that the striking wee bird of the fast-flowing rivers and burns does not seem to be as profuse as it has been for many years.

I certainly have not seen as many but it crossed my mind that I had hardly seen any dippers, which has probably been my own fault, because my standards of observation have been degenerating and my ‘Wanderings’ have been decreasing.

But Elaine had seen a pair of dippers in the Esk, so I walked through the Scholar’s Field, onto the riverbank and onwards to the Duchess’s Bridge.

I had no friendly Labradors with me that day as they were otherwise engaged with the pheasant shooting season, so I had to act as my own searcher, but there was not a lot to be seen on this cold but sunny day.

Then there on a rock in the middle of the Esk, near to the bridge, was a black bird with a distinctive white crest.

About the size of a blackbird (we used to call them ‘water blackies’), this portly bird with the shape and cocked tail of a jenny wren, was bobbing and curtsying, all the while looking into the water for any signs of food in the shape of molluscs or tiny fish.

Then the bird dived right under the water and headed upstream, against the current.

I have often referred to dippers as being an unusual and conspicuous bird which is standing on a river rock one moment and gone the next, a loner in a fast river.

The dipper and its mate always have their own stretch in the fast-flowing river and always remain between two fixed extremes of their beat during the nesting period.

Then it slips into the water and appears to fly upstream but, in fact, the bird walks upstream, with the fast current pushing over its head and back. The dipper is a unique song bird and, as far as I know, the only song bird that feeds under water.

About 100 metres past the Duchess’s Bridge and perched on a stone was another dipper. Or could it have been the same bird? I prefer to think of them as a pair.

At that point, the path crossed the site of the former heather house and started to climb upwards through the trees until it reached the Potholm Road near Breconwrae.

From there until the quarry there was little to be seen; local tree nesters such as the goosanders had disappeared for the winter but opposite Craigcleuch I turned into the hill near the power house belonging to the wind turbines.

I followed the Timpen Sike before it seemed to emerge from the deep cleuch of its birth. It is only about two feet across and quite shallow as it pushes through the bronze bracken and thistle.

I was about to step across the burn when there was a rustle and a black and white bird arose and darted away. Yes, it was another dipper. I was astonished. It surely was not one of my friends from the Esk but there was probably more food in this wee, narrow burn.

By now, at the bottom of the corrie, I was in deep shadow and as I am getting slower, I pushed on up the side of the cleuch until I eventually came out and onto the bealach or saddle between Craig Hill and Timpen.

Here, the nearby hills were all on view but overwhelmed by the proximity of those almost magical windmills just over the Craig Burn. Some folk appear to have taken an unreasonable dislike to the windfarm as well as oil, coal and nuclear energy.What, at present, is the alternative?

The sun was heading downwards to the Solway until it was shinning almost horizontally. It was time for home when my problems started.

With the brilliant light directly in my face, the intervening muirland appeared to be in complete darkness and all objects, like paths, tussocks, fences and sheep became invisible.

However, I eventually stumbled my way to the ridge fencing along the hill top and hence to the top of Timpen, with its triangulation point which, with the advent of satellite navigation, has become superfluous.

From this summit the path down to Langholm led away from the sun’s glare and all was clear down to Scott’s Knowe.

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