A few days ago I was asked if I was a birder and apparently I pulled an indecisive face. Now I’m proving the point. The air quivers with curlew music, but I am walking head down. In my defence, drizzle is gusting up the valley, and I’m looking for water vole feeding signs, hoping for evidence to match some promising burrows a little way downstream. There are plenty of clumps of rush, the stems trimmed at 45 degree angles, but droppings are elusive – washed away or disintegrated by the rain, I suppose.
If I hadn’t been focusing down, I might not have seen the dipper, dead in the rushes. Worse, I might have trodden on it.
It’s noticeably heavy and for a moment I think it must be saturated, but then I remember. Dippers are aquanauts as much as aeronauts and, uniquely among songbirds, their bones are solid, for ballast. Even more than me, their habitual focus is down, and in, not up or out.
I open the short, triangular wings. No wonder there’s something of the bumblebee in a live dipper’s whirring trajectory from rock to branch, branch to bank, and bank back to rock. In the water, the wings are both oars and hydrofoils, angled to harness the flow and surf the body down.
The feet are large, with long, loose-jointed toes that curl around my little finger. They have small dimpled pads, and the grapple-hook points of the claws are slightly blunted from anchoring the bird to the streambed while it probes for mayfly nymphs, caddis larvae and shrimp with a beak like a pair of needle-nosed pliers.
The feathers on the head are so fine they merge in what looks like a small serving of whipped chocolate mousse. One underwater-seeing eye is open. It is so nearly alive that I feel complicit – my inability to revive a crass excuse for my urge to possess.
The next morning I see another, bobbing and impeccable in its white bib and russet cummerbund. It calls and zips downstream like a wind-up toy released, more miraculous for the remembered dead weight of its cousin, the feet, the cocoa-feather drysuit.