1 Aug 2015

Ninja on the Stream

Brown Dipper (Cinclus pallasii). Photo: HIH Princess Takamado
Brown Dipper (Cinclus pallasii). Photo: HIH Princess Takamado
By HIH Princess Takamado

'Through the Lens', Fujingaho Magazine, August 2015

Click here to view pdf

Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado

English Translation: Asia Club, WBSJ Volunteer Group (YOKOYAMA Kazuko, KASE Tomoko)

A famous poet, WAKAYAMA Bokusui (1885-1928) described the Brown Dipper in one of his tanka; it roughly means as follows, (tanka is a Japanese traditional formal poetry of 5 lines, each containing 5-7-5-7-7 syllables):

“Away the Brown Dipper passed

 Singing over torrents sparkling

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 Of a stream running and raging”

I have chosen the sober-looking Brown Dipper to introduce to you this month, because I believe the photos of them around mountain streams might give you a cool feeling.

Brown Dipper (Cinclus pallasii). Photo: HIH Princess Takamado

Brown Dippers are quite attractive, offering somewhat mysterious impression.   They are the only speices that have specifically evolved to live on streams in the upper reach of rivers, dive and forage mainly for larvae of aquatic insects.  Sometimes being called the “ninja on the stream”, clad in “ninja costumes”, the birds not only swim in the water by making full use of their wings as oars, but even dive completely into the water and walk freely on the river bottom, if the river is shallow enough.  I would like to call it the very art of “water-escape” that used to be practiced by ninja on the stream.   Whenever a Brown Dipper appears on the surface of the water, I cannot but worry it might be washed away by the current.   However, it skillfully fights against the stream by swimming with the butterfly-like strokes and in a moment perches on a rock to take a rest. 

Brown Dippers look thickset and, I would say, they are larger than a sparrow and smaller than a starling in size.    They have wings, rather short in proportion to the body size, and legs, stout but without webs.   They blink often showing the white eyelids, which may be one of their most attractive features, but sometimes they look pretty eerie when they keep the eyes closed.  They are charming without doubt, when they set up their short tails straight like a robin.

As you see in the photos, Brown Dippers forage for foods along the fast-flowing streams and rivers.  It is said that only the females sit on the eggs and the chicks, but the males seem to take part in breeding.   I spent two whole days to take these photos and witnessed both of the parents busily carrying foods to the chicks.   They look for foods, walking around along the river at one time, and diving repeatedly at another.   The next moment, they would return straight to the nest, flying just above the surface, always with as many lavae of dayflies and caddice-flies as their beaks could hold.   They even dive with those lavae between the beaks and come up to a rock with additional foods.  It seems that they put the tongue firmly over the holding lavae lest the foods should fall.

At the “Utakai Hajime” of 2014, the New Year’s Imperial Gathering for Poetry Reading, I presented the following tanka, meaning:

“On the banks of rapid stream

Brown Dippers busy nesting

The water of early spring

Still chilly cold and clear”

Brown Dipper is “Kawa (river) garasu (crow)” in Japanese.   I remember my father once said that he had not known that there was a crow called “river-crow”.   I explained him that the bird belongs to a different group from the crow, and that it dives and wades in rapid streams.   Listening to me delightedly, he was much impressed by the bird’s “even doing such a thing” and said that he was amazed at the fact that there are various types of crows.   I had to explain, “No, Father, it is not a crow.”   He innocently replied, “but it is kawagarasu, isn’t it”   A ninja might have used his hiding art.   The Ninja of the stream has even slipped into my precious memory of my deceased father.


Brown Dipper (Cinclus pallasii). Photo: HIH Princess Takamado



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