Nature | Alternative Britain |Birds
The Man Who Hated Birds
It had been a long walk through the Shropshire hills in search of fossils and, with a good morning’s work completed and a bag full of rocks, I came down through the contours to Ludlow in search of a pub lunch. Checking the map, I noticed a path beside a woodland stream that was only a slight detour on the way to my food.
To fill the miles I decided to do a spot of birdwatching on my way down and was looking forward to a light hike along the stream in search of Cinclus cinclus — the Dipper — a small brown bird that looks a little like a stunted, barrel-chested Blackbird with a white bib.
Dippers are tenacious birds that often perch on rocks in the middle of fast-flowing shallow streams with their tails cocked like oversized Wrens. They feed by diving and swimming — even walking — underwater to catch aquatic invertebrates; at least, that’s what I’d surmised from the bird books because, in all my years of watching, I’d never actually seen one.
Despite what the field guides may tell you, the most common appearance of a Dipper is as a line drawing on a ‘context’ or ‘interpretation board’ erected by the river’s edge — the mounted information panels that feature paintings of bucolic loveliness, of habitats teeming with biodiversity, the preferred modern term for ‘life’.
The boards are usually installed after a programme of works to dredge the last few shopping trolleys out of a river and they present an optimistic vision of a habitat created by a partnership of organisations — organisations with striking logos designed to fit along the bottom of a context board. This particular panel was illustrated with an artist’s impression of what it would look like if all the interesting organisms from thirty miles around were condensed into a 300 yard stretch of river.
I’ve long realised that anywhere that you can hear the white noise rush of a weir you’ll see a Dipper on a nearby context board and absolutely none in the river.