San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature Connection[San Diego County Bird Atlas Project]

Reports from the Field
Fall 2001

The Dipper Expedition

Drawing of Dipper


On 24 May 2001, Paul Jorgensen's son Evan backpacked down Pauma Creek on the slope of Palomar Mountain, along the way encountering an agitated pair of Dippers. Evan agreed to lead a return expedition to the spot so we could attempt to confirm the birds' nesting. If we succeeded, it would be the first confirmation of Dippers nesting in San Diego County since 1933. So on 7 June, Evan, Kirsten Winter, Corey Ferguson, Rich Breisch and I made the trip. Paul shuttled us down from Palomar Mt. State Park, then picked us up in the afternoon—vehicles left at the trailhead have a history of being vandalized.

From the trailhead to the canyon bottom the elevation drops close to 1000 feet in less than a half mile—a slalom through the poison oak. Once we got to the spot, Evan pointed to a boulder and said, "this is where they were." At that very moment, a Dipper appeared from behind the boulder and flew upstream, out of sight. We immediately searched under and around the boulder for possible nest sites with no luck. Later, Evan saw one of the Dippers, flying back downstream with an insect in its bill. Continuing farther down meant either wading a cliff-walled pool or lowering oneself down the cliff with a rope. Though the other four of us negotiated the rope successfully, I decided this was not the time and place to train myself as a rock climber.

Once around—or through—the pool, we encountered another cliff, a hundred feet high, festooned with maidenhair and giant Woodwardia ferns, dripping with water—a seemingly perfect nest site. At that moment, a Dipper flew overhead, giving us the 2-second glimpse now becoming familiar. Waiting a half hour at this cliff, though, failed to reveal anything further.

We started to return slowly upstream. Kirsten had seen a Dipper flying that direction, and we continued to nose into plausible nest sites. Finally, a Dipper again flew past us, passing within 10 feet of me. This time, though, it made a 180-degree turn, disappearing among the rocks. Immediately we looked for a possible nest. On his belly, Corey leaned over a rock and looked up into a crevice, through which water was rushing.

"There's a dead bird in there!" he shouted, looking almost as if he had seen a ghost. After a second look he said, "it's alive—I saw its feet move!" We took turns peering into the crevice, holding each other by the belt of our pants to ensure we didn't slide headfirst into the water and rocks. At the far back of the crevice, we could see just the pale flesh-pink feet of a Dipper, plus a little bit of the gray flanks. The rest of the bird was hidden farther up the crevice, and it did its best to keep itself hidden in there. Thank goodness the species has those pale feet—dark ones would have been invisible against the dark wet rock. Seeing more would have been impossible without creeping on the slippery rock with ice-cold water pouring down on us.

Thus our search for San Diego County's most enigmatic bird ended with this enigmatic observation. Was a nest hidden even deeper in the crevice? Was this a fledgling using the crevice as a hiding place? Presumably an adult would have fled the crevice immediately when strange megafauna peered into it. One adult flew over us while we were trying to look into the crevice. I'm certain the birds are nesting, even though we never saw more than one adult at a time. There may even have been two pairs, given the opposite directions in which we saw the adults flying.

With occasional reports from Pauma Creek dating back to 1945, it seems there must be a permanent if tiny population of Dippers there, hidden from the prying eyes of all but the rare fisherman by the incredibly rugged terrain. I cannot recommend that anyone attempt to search for the birds. The climb back out was brutal, taking us two hours and entailing more climbing of ropes, struggling up nearly vertical crumbling slopes, and constant brushes with poison oak and biting flies. I was exhausted and feeling sick before I was halfway back up. May San Diego County's Dippers long thrive undisturbed in their secret canyon!

Sketch from History of North American Birds, Spencer Baird, Thomas Brewer and Robert Ridgway

--Philip Unitt

Fall 2001 Wrenderings | Wrenderings Archive | Bird Atlas Introduction