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The Search for the American Dipper or Dipping On Dipper

Once, perhaps 35 years ago, I saw an American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) flying downstream on the San Lorenzo River, between Middle and Sandy Beach in Paradise Park. What an amazing sighting. The bird of John Muir, the aquatic songbird of clear, turbulent mountain streams was on the San Lorenzo!

At the time I did not keep records so I don’t know the month or year of the sighting but since that time I have been looking to find another dipper on the river. This bird is an indicator species for the health of a river. Dippers are considered a rare bird in Santa Cruz County but there was suitable habitat upriver in Henry Cowell State Park that look promising. Large granite boulders, turbulent river water. This is where a dipper should be, I reckoned.

I first checked the location of my first sighting on the San Lorenzo on the turbulent turn in the river between Sandy and Middle Beach. This rocky bend looked like good habitat for dipper and I walked up river, checking river rocks for the tell tale signs of whitewash, bird poop. There was some but this could be from a black phoebe. I did not see a dipper here.

On another day I next searched Rincon Gorge upstream from Paradise Park. Dipper had been reported here in May 1988 and again in May 2009 where a nest with young was seen. That was a long time ago and there were no current reports on eBird. So I searched and I again dipped on dipper.

Now it was time for a bigger expedition on the San Lorenzo, to explore some of the best stretches of river between Coon Gulch and Garden of Eden Beach in Henry Cowell State Park. This effort would require traversing down to the river from the railroad tracks on what only could be called a mountain goat path and then hiking up and often in, the San Lorenzo, towards Garden of Eden.

I parked on Highway 9 and headed down the Ox Fire Road towards the railroad and Garden of Eden. When I was halfway down the trail I heard the primeval calls of our largest woodpecker: the pileated. On a Douglas-fir snag, about 100 yards from the railroad, I spotted a family group of four pileated woodpeckers! Either this was a good omen for my dipper search or a great consolation for dipping.

After leaving the pileated family I headed downstream on the railroad and took the trail down to the popular beach, Garden of Eden. Perhaps this beach should be renamed Garden of Trash. I was appalled at the amount of cans and bottles, random clothes and towels, and toilet paper. Beachgoers clearly ignored the “Pack Out Your Trash” signs.

The amount of discarded cans and bottles along the banks of the San Lorenzo was truly disgusting!

I headed upstream from Garden of Eden to check the granite boulders for dipper. I was further appalled at all the graffiti on rocks and logs. It seemed far from the favored pristine rivers that the dipper preferred. And I did not find any dippers upstream from Garden of Eden.

What makes someone come to the San Lorenzo and spray paint a rock, I will never know! No wonder I didn’t find dipper on this stretch of the river.

When I returned to the main beach a young man was wiping graffitti off a sign post that no longer contained a sign. I’m sure the sign said, “Don’t Litter” or “Respect The Trees, Dippers, and Rocks!” or “Save the Painting For Sketchbooks and Canvas!” Turns out he was an interpretive ranger from Henry Cowell State Park who comes to Garden of Eden, before his shift, to clean up the beach. I asked about beach clean-ups and he told me that when litter is removed, there is more to replace it on the following days. Shameful!!

I returned to the railroad and hiked downstream towards Coon Gulch. I paused at the osprey nest where both adults were perched near the nest, indicating that there might be chicks hidden in the deep nest.

A view of the osprey nest and the two adults from below on the banks of the San Lorenzo. I did a brush-pen sketch of the nest on my journal.

I then headed down the steep mountain goat trail towards the river (this seemed so much easier 30 years ago). The final pitches of the trail had rope tried to trees to aid in the descent. This was a far less accessible part of the river and is not visited as much and seemed a little more “pristine” then upriver.

I traded my hiking boots for river sandals, made sure everything was secure in my dry bag, and I grabbed a hiking stick and headed upstream.

This, to me, is the most scenic and “wild” stretch of the river. The stream bed was lined in large granite boulders, perfect foraging perches for the American dipper.

Heading upstream on a beautiful stretch of the river, between Coon Gulch and Garden of Eden. If there was any place on the San Lorenzo that contained dipper, I reckoned this was it.

Progress was slow going as I was hiking in the river, reminiscent of The Narrows in Zion National Park. I had to pick my path through the large boulders often crossing and recrossing the river bed to find the path of least resistance. A bonus was finding a Pacific wren nest built under a fallen Doulas-fir tree that spanned the river.

The river veered to the right and I was in the stretch of river that when viewed from Highway 9 is known as Inspiration Point. I needed some avian inspiration at this point!

The river hike was an adventure in itself but the closer I came to Garden of Eden, I knew the the chances of seeing American dipper on this stretch was diminished. The habitat seemed right but the pollution and semi-turbid waters of the San Lorenzo did not look like the pristine mountain stream that the dipper require.

I have made the journey with no mishaps or injury and as I came in sight of Garden of Eden, which was now full of family groups, I took this time to slip and fall. It’s always good to have an audience. And as Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” And so I recovered and stood up again only to see that no one noticed.