A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Perhaps the oddest bird you'll see in Sonoma County--if you're lucky enough to see one. American Dipper (also known as North American Dipper and Water Ouzel) has the distinction of being North America's only aquatic songbird. Confined to rapidly flowing, pristine mountain streams, there are only a few locations in Sonoma County suitable for Dipper. Mostly found in the Austin Creek drainage area in the northeastern part of the county (see the page for King Ridge Rd.).

Special adaptions (scaled nostrils that close underwater, a special third eyelid that helps keep the eyes clean underwater, proportionately long legs, and powerful claws) allow American Dipper to survey rapidly moving water from rocks before diving in to look for insect larvae, hunting underwater in currents strong enough to knock a person down. Swims to depths of as much as 20 feet and can walk and forage on river bottoms. Perfectly happy in water so cold it would likely freeze if it weren't moving. Sometimes wades with its head under water searching for food, and it may pick insects from rocks or occasionally flycatch, but mostly it finds prey below the surface. Sometimes bobs on the water like a duck momentarily, before disappearing again.  Uses its powerful, stubby wings underwater to swim--suggesting a penguin (although this penguin can fly, and it doesn't waddle). Rarely flies over land. If not seen perched on rocks sticking out of the water or moving in and out of the water, usually observed flying rapidly and low over streams, following the course of the flow. Usually solitary, but may be seen in pairs or feeding young during breeding season, although breeding has been confirmed in Sonoma County in only one or two spots. Uses cliff faces next to water for nest sites, but may nest on rocks virtually in the water. Sometimes uses bridge structures for nesting. Also known to build nests behind waterfalls.

The plump silhouette, mostly grey color, and short tail may suggest European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), especially in flight when the bird is mostly a grey blur, but no other bird really looks like a Dipper. Field guides tend to show American Dipper as fairly uniformly grey or grey-brown. The coloration is often more subtle than that. The head can tend toward a brownish grey. The body is a slaty grey but often has slight mottling, and the wings and lower belly are sometimes a slightly warmer tone than the back and upper breast. The legs are a steely pink-grey. The eye briefly appears white when the bird blinks (see photo below). Sibley's illustration seems closer to reality than those in the newer Peterson guide (4th edition; too uniformly brownish), the old Peterson guide (3rd edition; too uniformly dark grey) or the National Geographic guide (5th edition; ditto). Fix and Bezener show a charcoal bird with a black head. Two subspecies are recognized, which may account for some of the color variation in actual birds. Juveniles are paler overall, but especially underneath and at the throat, and young birds have paler bills than adults.

Produces a buzzy call note but also sings a surprisingly sweet, melodic song suggestive of a wren--although American Dipper is sometimes difficult to hear over the sound of the rushing streams it's found in. 

Trivia: Some sources say the name of the bird comes from the way it dips into the water to feed. Others point to the bird's habit of bobbing on rocks after it lands.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 95

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 346, 347

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 129

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 344

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 386

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 482

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 292

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 268

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 221-222

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 57

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 282

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 266

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 335

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 540

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 330

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--American Dipper



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Blinking Dipper, showing white eyelid

American Dipper, August 13, 2012

American Dipper

American Dipper

Cinclus mexicanus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated May 30, 2013

EBird reported  occurrence in Sonoma County