Eagle River Ouzel
In an unpublished journal entry from 1873, John Muir wrote about a little grey bird he called an ouzel. He was refering to Cinclus mexicanus commonly know as the American Dipper or Water Ouzel. Temps in the mountains have hit the 60s this week so snow-melt is pouring into the Eagle River making it bigger and faster. Being in its range and the Eagle starting to bump, I went searching for John Muir’s ouzel here in Eagle County, Colorado.
This small dark grey bird is roughly 6.5 inches long and weighs about 1.5 ounces. Their range extends throughout the mountainous regions of Central America and western North America from Panama to Alaska. I picked a spot where I’d seen one feeding on the Eagle earlier and hoped he might come back. He did.
Ouzels like to eat a variety of aquatic insects and their larvae. The insects are stuck to rocks on the bottom of rivers underneath the torrent of spring snow-melt that rushes through mountain rivers and streams.
Like a skilled paddler, the ouzel jumps from rock to rock through the gnarliest whitewater. And all to get his lunch. It’s amazing to watch.
Knowing the impact and influence water has on our mountain communities, the ouzel seems to embody the stoke so many of us living in the mountains feel about sliding on solid and liquid water. He dives into whitewater, grabs a bite for the family and sings about it the whole time – winter or summer.
Later when reviewing the images, I noticed what looked like large white eyelashes in a few of the photographs. After some quick research it turns out there are white feathers on this species eyelids. So every time they blink they flash a bit of whitewater spray. In addition, all dippers have an extra eyelid called a nictitating membrane that allows it to see underwater.
Ouzels are usually permanent residents so their presence makes them indicator species for healthy river ecosystems.
Ouzel. by John Muir, Yosemite 1873
The life of an ouzel seems an echo of the mountain streams. In the coldest weather he dives and breaks forth again in sweet summer strains of song. Whenever you go tracking the streams you will be cheered by his song…His song is low, sweet, and fluty, expressing the very heart-peace of nature, steadfast as a star in its shining, through dwelling in the midst of the blare and glare of wild torrents.
The ouzel seems an outgrowth of the streams themselves, derived from them like flowers from the ground, as if the pebbles around which the waters had sung for ages had at length been overgrown with feathers and flown away, preserving all the music that had passed over them to be given back to blossom again…