Dippers

“Dippers are birds of fast-flowing upland streams and rivers. ‘Young streams’ as this steep, plunging stage of a river’s life is termed, where there is sufficient gradient for coaxing rapids and hollowing shallow pools.”

James Macdonald Lockhart, Archipelago, 2:1, Ed. by Andrew McNeillie, Clutag Press, Thame, 2022.

Indeed they are – I’m often told as much when I’m out on the Kelvin photographing them. There were a number of points along the river’s course as it winds its way through the West End of Glasgow down towards the Clyde where a Dipper sighting could be almost guaranteed. There is a viewpoint where the walkway crosses the river just before Kelvinbridge. Inn Deep have annexed it now for use as a beer garden but I used to be able to stand by the railing and watch one or sometimes two Dippers. I think this was the last time that I was told about the birds’ predilections for places and water wilder than those I was looking upon. The camera was firing away while a chap was telling me that “I wouldn’t see a Dipper around here.”

My first sightings of Dippers in Glasgow were on a little scrape of gravel which protrudes into the river under the Skaethorn Road bridge. The stone bridge into Dawsholme Park was another good vantage point; Dippers would feed in the rapids just downstream. A pair nested under the bridge in 2021 – could this be the pair we saw investigating an old outlet pipe by the weir half-a-mile further downstream?

The stretch by the old Flint Mill down to the Belmont Bridge was reliable too – there are stone slabs on the far side where chicks would stand and be fed. One walk along the Kelvin would often yield multiple sightings, suggesting that there were several occupied territories, with successful breeders in each one.

That Dippers sing was a surprise, first realised in New Lanark. We were standing by the river as it runs through the factory and listening to a peal of song, quite unlike that of a Robin or Wren, and looking at a Dipper a few yards away. The bird was clearly singing, and delightfully. The books told us that Dippers were indeed singers, and then we had our ears in, and heard them on the Kelvin. I’m yet to get a good recording.  I took the presence of these birds in an urban setting as proof of their adaptability – I was excited to think that the Kelvin could sustain so many very special birds. Between 1975 and 2018 numbers of Dippers declined by 30% according to DEFRA’s 2019 update of Wild Bird Populations in the UK. The summary of this trend is “weak decline” – I guess I’m just not used to looking at the numbers . I thought our local population was thriving but I’m not so sure now because I don’t see them as regularly in the old stances.

Has anything changed on the Kelvin? More dogs go in the river now, because there are so many more dogs than there were a year or two ago. The Smart Canal Project has also been realised; there are compelling reasons to improve the drainage in North Glasgow as more houses cover the landscape but using the Kelvin as a storm drain seemed reckless to me. Scottish Water has worked extensively in the West End, upgrading or installing new drainage outlets which empty into the river. I have no way of quantifying the implications of all this work on the levels or speed of flow of the river, or assessing the effects on species which feed in its waters. I hope the Dippers have simply relocated and are still doing well. I strongly recommend James Macdonald Lockhart’s delightful article “The Blacksmith of the Stream”.

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