Country diary: ringing of the dippers

Allendale, Northumberland: The licensed ringer reaches up into the nest, a dome of moss wedged between a concrete beam and the curved underside of the bridge

A mallard is plodging in a shallow pool among rocks exposed and whitened by the lack of rain. Dusty coltsfoot leaves edge the burn, a small tributary of the East Allen, and, in damp places, pink lady’s smock grows through vivid yellow-green patches of crosswort. The low level of the stream makes it easier for Charlotte Reid, a licensed bird ringer, to carry her wooden stool under the bridge that spans the quiet valley road.

Equipment for measuring dippers
Equipment for measuring dippers. Photograph: Susie White

Charlotte has been ringing dippers at this traditional site for six years and sending the data to the British Trust for Ornithology. She stands on the stool to reach up into the nest, a dome of moss wedged between a concrete beam and the curved underside of the bridge. Through a large entrance hole, angled toward the water below, she can feel a smooth curved inner cup lined with beech leaves and two chicks not long off fledging. This is the first brood of the season; there are often three in a year at this site.

The chicks wriggle feistily in a cotton bag as she carries them to the bank, where she has her measuring equipment: recording book, scales, pliers and different-sized rings strung on coloured plastic loops like necklaces. Choosing the correct ring for dippers – a size CC – she deftly closes it around the leg of a chick just above its foot, then upends it in the Thomas the Tank Engine mug that stands on the plate of the electronic scales. Wing length is measured against a steel rule, and the time and date noted in the book.

Charlotte lightly wets the chicks’ feathers – dampening them discourages them from jumping out of the nest – before quickly placing them back inside their mossy home.

A dipper chick upended in a mug for weighing
A dipper chick upended in a mug for weighing. Photograph: Susie White

Dippers feed underwater in these clear valley streams. We search below the bridge to see what else might frequent this spot. There’s a network of footprints in the gritty mud and a matt black dropping studded with tiny bones. I rub it between my fingers to catch the earthy, slightly fishy smell; while the dippers sleep in their high up nest, otters hunt below the bridge.


Susie White

The GuardianTramp

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