Book Review: American Dippers and The Singer in the Stream

The Singer in the Stream, by Katherine Hocker and Mary Willson, Cinclus Press (distributed by Bored Feet Press, 2008, 32 pages, $10.95

American Dippers: Singers in the Mountain Streams, by Mary F. Willson and Katherine M. Hocker, Cinclus Press (distributed by Bored Feet Press, 2010, 64 pages, $12.95

Anyone familiar with the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) knows without a doubt that looks are indeed deceiving. These nondescript grey birds are mountain-stream specialists that breed and nest around waterfalls, plunge pools, and stream-side cliffs and boulders. But what makes these aquatic songbirds so curious is their talent of diving, swimming, and walking underwater for as long as 30-seconds in search of caddisflies, fish, and salmon roe. Given that dippers are more closely related to either thrushes or starlings, they’re no shorebirds, ranging instead roughly the mountain zones from northern Alaska to Panama. The great John Muir was enchanted by dippers (what he called “water ouzels”), deeming them the “darling” of mountain streams. The high esteem Muir paid these water-winged warblers (as vocalists, not the Sylvioid or Passeroid “warblers”) is reflected in two new dipper publications, a reference guide and a children’s book, by retired ecology professor/researcher Mary Willson and naturalist/artist Katherine Hocker.

The duo’s first collaborative effort in 2008 brought us The Singer in the Stream, a children’s book authored by the pair with illustrations by Hocker. The story is a simple one, following the life of a pair of dippers and their offspring to recount the specie’s life history. Hocker’s illustrations are perfect for this endeavor: interactive, vibrant, colorful, and life-like. The beads of water on the cover seem about to trickle off the bird’s back into your hands, while the alternating flap- and unflappability of grounded fledglings or the near-miss-haste of a goshawk ambush are captured flawlessly. My only real complaint here is a missed moment; although there’s a page depicting a dipper porpoising through the water in search of bugs, I had really hoped for an image that portrayed the actual wing-swimming, underwater-walking spectacle that makes dippers so unique.

Their second collaborative effort, American Dippers: Singers in the Mountain Streams, synthesizes the natural history of the species in a concise reference guide for Cinclus connoisseurs. Although I feel inclined to call it a reference guide rather than a field guide due to the glaring omission of a range map, Hocker and Willson nevertheless weave a thorough yet trim natural history account that, together with a collection of (mostly) sharp color photos accented with Hocker’s diagrammatic sketches, canvasses the dipper’s life above and below the water’s edge. Especially humbling is the “Where’s Waldo?” photomontage on page 61 that challenges you to find the nest or bird camouflaged in each of six different images. By the time you’re done nest-searching, you’ll wonder who’s the bigger dip?


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  1. #1 by mary f willson on November 25, 2012 - 8:51 pm

    I’m glad to see that, for the most part, our little books passed muster. However, please note that I spell my surname with two Ls (Willson).
    Thank you.

  2. #2 by Matthew Bettelheim on November 25, 2012 - 10:49 pm

    My most sincere apologies; I have made the correction. Thanks for two great references on this enigmatic bird.

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