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

Reports from the Field
Spring 2002

The Dipper Expedition--Take 2

Illustration of American Dipper

American Dipper

Our final winter season had not yet even begun when Rich Breisch began asking me about a repeat trip to Pauma Creek to look for the Dippers we had seen last June. Recalling the exhausting rigors of that earlier trip, I hesitated. But, I looked also at our atlas records and saw that square E13 still needed 11 more species if we were to reach the goal for its winter threshold. And, I looked at the calendar, thinking that should we get heavy rain, Pauma Creek could easily rise to the level where it would be impassable, so the expedition should be made earlier in the winter rather than later.

So, I started contacting our team from last summer. Apparently, the rest of our participants were less traumatized by the experience than I was, because recruiting them proved easy. Ultimately, we had Kirsten Winter, Jeff Wells, Jim Zimmer, Corey Ferguson, Craig Wentworth, and Rich Breisch, as well as me. Paul Jorgensen and Ed Hall kindly offered to shuttle us down Nate Harrison Grade from Palomar Mountain State Park, and we agreed on the date of 18 January. Nevertheless, I was concerned that we be better prepared than last time, and badgered Rich and Jim for climbing rope. They knew how heavy it would be to carry out of the deep canyon, but I insisted, offering to carry it myself.

Armed with better knowledge of the location of the trail than we had last summer, we bid Ed and Paul goodbye at the trailhead and wished them well, since they would cover the remainder of square E13 while we descended into the abyss. The descent to the bottom was the easy part, taking only 20 minutes. The ropes the fishermen had left along the trail were still there, and in good condition. Furthermore, we found the trail and its ropes continued all the way to the bottom, by a route we had missed in June. The rope I had so adamantly insisted on carrying proved superfluous! We stashed it under a rock and divided into three groups.

Rich, Jeff, and I headed downstream, in the direction of last June's nest site. We soon started suspecting that Dippers could be in the area: little white blobs of droppings placed here and there on the rocks near the water in just the places where a Dipper would stand. But we got to the nest site and past without seeing any live Dippers--or any other kind of bird for that matter. Only the gurgling of the creek as it tumbled over the rocks broke the silence. In vain I squeaked, trying to shock a response out of any bird that could hear. In the deep shade of the canyon bottom, where the sun might not hit even at noon in midwinter, the cold air lay like a blanket. It seemed that any bird in the canyon must have moved up high onto the slopes where the morning sun could impart some energy.

Finally, after climbing down many tricky dropoffs, we got to the large pool bordered on both sides by vertical rock walls at least 30 feet high, a spot I had waded through in June. But on this frigid January morning I decided against wading. Jeff and Rich climbed up a nearby slope but would have needed a rope to descend to the other side of the pool. I stared up the opposite side of the canyon, looking for any possible way up and around the cliff. At that moment, Rich barked, "Dipper! Phil, it just flew 10 feet over your head!" I spun around to look, but by the time I knew where to look, the bird had already disappeared back upstream, out of sight. This was a pattern familiar to us from last June, the birds flying by, keeping out of view behind the many twists in the canyon. We started slowly back upstream. Twice more we had but brief glimpses of the bird as it retreated up the gorge. Then we perched atop a rock that afforded one of the longer views upstream, almost back to the nest site. Here, in nearly a half hour of waiting, I got a few seconds' view of the Dipper feeding normally, plunging into the water. As we continued up the creek, we finally saw the bird well a few times, though only very briefly, before it turned and flew back downstream. Along Pauma Creek, where the birds are so rarely exposed to people and have such abundant opportunities to conceal themselves, any kind of observation of their behavior would take far longer than a few hours' visit.

Gradually we regrouped at the foot of the trail. Jim and Craig had headed the farthest upstream and had encountered at least two Dippers, giving us a minimum count of three for the day. The other teams had seen a few more birds than Rich, Jeff, and I had, but not many. Kirsten had spotted a Townsend's Solitaire, but otherwise there was little of interest. One by one, we started heading back up the hill. Frequent rest stops were essential, but, with the aid of ropes all the way, not to mention cooler temperatures, the climb out proved far less arduous than it had in June. But another hazard lined the trail: poison oak, now leafless, almost blocked the way in places. As the twigs slapped my arms, I thought myself well protected by three layers of clothing….

Once back to Nate Harrison Grade, we sat beside the road comparing notes. We had picked up a few species new for the square in addition to the Dipper: the Song Sparrow, Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks, and Cedar Waxwing. Soon Paul and Ed rejoined us. They had had a very productive morning, finding several additional species beyond the minimum needed for us to clear the threshold in E13. Ed broke out a bottle of wine to celebrate, and we congratulated ourselves on the success of the day on all fronts.

Early the next morning I headed to Camp Pendleton for a three-day field trip there. That too proved successful, thanks to the dogged determination of Lori Hargrove and Joe Barth. But on the evening of the third day, I began to itch. By the next morning, the awful truth was written all over my skin: the worst case of poison oak I have had since I was a child. Systemic skin reactions compounded the welts from the poison oak itself, and even one month later mysterious symptoms linger. Again, for your own safety, I urge you to leave San Diego County's Dippers in peace!

--Phil Unitt

Spring 2002 Wrenderings | Wrenderings Archive | Bird Atlas Introduction