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There’s very little birdsong in this valley right now. Just thin wisps of notes from the robin, the see-sawing sounds of great tits on warm days or wild bursts from mistle thrushes that, in some years, I’ve recorded in my diary around Christmas time.

There’s one bird, though, that sings throughout the year and that is the dipper. I listen for it when I step outside the back door. This song has a fluidity that seems all about the movement of the river where it lives, a stream of calmer moments followed by flurries of repeated notes. It has some of the sweetness of the skylark mixed with the variety of the thrush. In summer, I straighten from working the veg garden to take notice. In winter, when even the sheep are silent, it’s especially uplifting.

On this cold January morning I go out into the glinting world of the frosted field. There’s ice on the pussy willows, ice on tufts of caught wool, ice turning barbed wire into tinsel. Where the river bends, a dipper sings from a boulder in the fast-flowing mid-current; favourite perching rocks are streaked in white droppings at intervals down the stream. They have a strong attachment to territory, with nest sites being traditional, and pairs are monogamous, sometimes for years.

As a child, I first saw a dipper walking underwater below Jedburgh Abbey. Through the clarity of the Jed, I marvelled as it picked food from the gravel bed; mayfly nymphs, caddisfly larvae and tiny fish such as minnows are in its diet.

A European dipper (Cinclus cinclus) feeding in a stream



A European dipper
(Cinclus cinclus) feeding in a stream. Photograph: Wildscotphotos/Alamy

Dippers have dense feathers, preened with oil to waterproof them, and they manoeuvre through the water using their wings. They are unfazed by cold. In the winter of 2010, when the East Allen had all but frozen over, water gurgling beneath a solid five inches as if in a cavern, I watched a dipper feeding. A dark blur, it moved resolutely this way and that, popping up occasionally, flicking its nictitating membranes over its eyes.

Mating early in the season and being equipped for tough weather, the dippers of the East Allen may have their first clutch within only seven or eight weeks.

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The Gaurdian

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