Cinclus mexicanus

This isn’t exactly a lifelook, in the sense that Frank Izaguirre is promoting. But it was my first sighting of this species, it was a good look, and it’s been one of the most personally significant. When people ask me, “what is the best bird you’ve seen?” this is usually the story I tell.

In December 1996 I was visiting family in Sacramento and doing some of my first birding in California. I was fortunate in that the rains that had been pounding wine country let up just before I arrived, so I had some good birds in the Central Valley—my first Sandhill Cranes, for instance. But the lowland rains meant substantial snow cover in the mountains. U.S. 50 was closed, preventing me from getting out to explore at elevation.

Finally, on the morning of Christmas Day, the roads were opened, and I made a dash to the Eldorado National Forest to see some birds before rejoining family for the holiday. I was pretty much limited to finding a parking place on the side of the road, clumping through someone else’s tracks in the snow (three to five feet of it on the ground) for a hundred yards or so, then returning to the car.

Looking at my checklist for the day, I see that I didn’t record much: some juncos, nuthatches, maybe a kinglet. The White-headed Woodpecker was a lifer for me. But it’s when I stopped on a footbridge over a little creek that the Look happened.

I was watching the meltwater rushing downstream, and I noticed a burbling, roiling something under the surface of the water. Just water over the rocks, right?—but then the roiling moved. What, a tiny mammal? I thought. The disturbance continued moving upstream, and then the dark head of a bird broke the surface. The rest of the bird emerged, the size of a thrush or smaller. It was an American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), a/k/a Water Ouzel, doing what it does best, foraging in fast-moving mountain streams. The bird worked the stream a bit more, then took flight, settled in a tree, and sang its whistling, trilling song.

And thus, #227 on my life list.

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