Scientists Thomas Nuttall and John Kirk Townsend accompanied Nathaniel Wyeth and others to explore America’s upper northwest in 1834. On April 28, the men were confident, healthy and strong in Independence, Missouri. By late August they were disgruntled, famished, and exhausted while descending the Blue Mountains. The closer they came to Fort Walla-walla, the easier it was to travel along valley streams of Oregon and the better the opportunities to hunt and fish.
What strength and provisions the group lost crossing western plains and mountains, Thomas Nuttall and John Kirk Townsend gained with specimens of new and unusual birds and plants. Among the most remarkable was a sparrow-sized bird with a short tail moving about in the middle of shallow, fast-flowing streams. If a wren could swim, this is the bird.
Rather than appearing briefly on a rock, low branch, or tall blade of grass and then dropping down into dense vegetation to search for food or nesting opportunities, this bird appears briefly on a rock or near the bank of a stream and then plunges into the water. And like a wren, the bird has no webbed feet! It can remain underwater for nearly a minute. Small covers fall over the birds nostrils to prevent water from entering the bird’s nose. It flaps its wings underwater to propel itself to the bed of the stream. It then walks along the stream bed, occasionally stopping to scratch the stream bed or turn over small rocks to find snails and other kinds of food. Before the bird runs out of breath, it flaps to the surface. The bird then either swims or takes a short flight to reach the next spot where it cares to dive and swim.
The naming and identification of the bird is as difficult to follow as watching it fly about and swim. William Swainson called the bird an American dipper (Americanus). Thomas Nuttall called the bird simply a Dipper or the Black Water-ouzel. John James Audubon’s drawing of the bird for Birds of America is based on specimens gathered by Nuttall and Townsend. For the double elephant folio of Birds of America, Audubon labeled the bird the American Water Ouzel (Cinclus Americanus). He then changed the common name in the octavo edition to the American Dipper. The bird is still known as the American dipper, but its scientific name is now Cinclus mexicanus.
Other specimens gathered by Nuttall and Townsend led Audubon to name two new species of water ouzels for the last drawing of the double elephant folio of Birds of America. Appearing in Plate 435 are the Columbian water ouzel (Cinclus townsendi) and the Arctic water ouzel (Cinclus mortoni). Audubon then drops them from the octavo edition of Birds of America never to be heard from again. Currently there are only five species of dippers in the world. Less Cinclus townsendi and Cinclus mortoni leaves Cinclus mexicanus as the only known dipper in North America.