Country diary: A small bird taking on a swollen river
Miller’s Dale, Derbyshire: Amid a shower of falling leaves, the dipper is amazingly unfazed by the power of the water
You could see how the westerlies churned through the autumn trees, and it was most striking among the big mature beeches, up in the canopy, where the orange and gold foliage twisted like a tidal current. There was also a heavy fall of thousands – if not millions – of leaves but flighting in separate gusts, so on one occasion, while I recognised a lower shower of five-fingered plates as sycamore leaves, there was a higher squall of beech that I initially mistook for a flock of finches.
Here, by the Angler’s Rest pub, the River Wye was super charged with last week’s rain, and fallen foliage was drifting everywhere in the current. I noticed that a grey heron had just speared what looked to be a little bullhead, but had simultaneously spiked a big yellow sycamore leaf.
Among a shallower section mid-river, however, where the limestone gravel normally breaks the surface, the whole patch was overtopped by the current. Many of the leaves had got jammed behind these rocks or had somehow got trapped on the riverbed by the weight of the flow, and it was so strewn with submerged foliage that these shallows looked yellow.
A dipper had found rich pickings among this riverine litter. I watched it for several hours and was most astonished by the way a 60g bird negotiated the torrent with such aplomb. The instant it dived, a black bird was turned into a wriggling jet of silver, sheathed in displaced water. Its other technique was to brace its strong legs and upend, wings forced back to push it down, when it looked like a tiny headless chicken.
The proceeds of the efforts elicited two responses. Caddis larvae sheathed in their little stone casings were taken ashore for a good beating on a rock. But other caseless caddis larvae, possibly from the family Hydropsychidae, were clamped in its beak. These primeval beasts wriggled and twisted vigorously, but the dipper swallowed them whole. Most evident was the sheer relish that it showed in all its works. I went back the next day amid rain and the dipper was in exactly the same melancholy spot. But singing.