I’ve got a pitch for a movie:
Called “The Curse of the Disappearing Dipper,” it tells the true story of one man’s search for an elusive bird in the wilds of Minnesota.
The movie would follow three days in the life of the Old Birder. A man of perseverance and patience, he hikes into the woods in northern Minnesota and stakes out a river. For 22 hours. In late May.
It’s shivery cold in the mornings, sweaty-hot by midday. But the Old Birder won’t budge from the Kadunce River east of Grand Marais. He seriously wants to see an American dipper, one bird he — and just about everyone else — has never seen in Minnesota.
As with all good movies, there would be tension: The dipper is not known to live anywhere east of the Black Hills of South Dakota.
There was a tantalizing series of Minnesota sightings in the winter of 1970. And there have been rumors of sightings of this bird here since the 1950s.
Cue the flashback:
“On January 29, 1970, a birder found a dipper on the Temperance River, in Cook County,” Duluth bird expert and author Laura Erickson would intone. (Actually, she wrote that.) “Two days later a dipper was sighted on the Cascade River, 19 miles northeast of the first one.
“The next day one was sighted halfway between the two rivers, on the Poplar River. Many birders were able to locate it on the Temperance River during February and March. It was last seen on April 4 on the Baptism River.”
But wait! There are new rumors swirling that the dipper has been seen in Minnesota recently. As recently as this spring.
The movie opens on Bemidji trout fisherman John Sorenson wading the sunlit waters of a Kadunce, fly rod in hand. He sees a dipper, a bird he recognizes. The Old Birder soon learns of this. He immediately drives north, buying a bug shirt and a camp seat cushion along the way.
When he reaches the Kadunce, he sits. He watches. He waits.
Hours into his vigil, two hikers happen by (one a biologist) with a report of an unusual bird just a shout upstream. They offer a credible description:
The dipper is a gray bird about the size of a robin. Chunky, with a stubby tail. It lives along rocky, fast-flowing mountain streams. (OK, there aren’t any mountains in Minnesota, but North Shore streams qualify.) The bird feeds underwater, diving, swimming or walking on the bottom, hunting insects. When it’s on its rock perch, it makes an unmistakable dipping motion.
What the hikers say excites the Old Birder, who remains on his camp cushion.
And sees … nothing.
The music swells, the movie is drawing to a close. You see the man, the river.
But just before the screen fades to black, the camera pans over to the river, then zooms in for a close-up on the rocks.
What’s that? Just some white splotches, probably bird doo.
Lots of bird doo.
A bird has clearly been on those rocks.
What kind of bird? Well, what bird stands on rocks more than an American dipper?
The camera freezes.
In a voice over, Minnesota birding expert Robert Janssen says: “To this day the North Shore dipper remains a mystery.”
The credits roll.
The audience leaves the theater, already eager for the sequel.