Cormorants

Cormorant Life

Perching evocatively on fog-shrouded rocks while draping their vampire-like capes... disappearing into dark waters with a needle-like focus.... Cormorants are probably my favorite bird that lives on the California coast, but I have been so confused about identification that I have probably shouted out a cormorant's greeting to many mistaken loons and vice versa. To add to the confusion of sorting out floating cormorants, sea ducks, grebes and loons, even if I can accurately identify a cormorant, the next task is to figure out which of the three California cormorants that it is.

After my attendance at the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival many years in a row, I can now give a sense of the differences among cormorants, loons, sea ducks and grebes:

Now I move on to the next quandary, picking a type of the three cormorants that we are lucky to get to know on the central California coast. Here are some tips:

  • In central California, there are three types of cormorants: Brandt's, Double-crested and Pelagic.
  • The Pelagic, despite its name, also comes often to shore. It is smaller than the other two (a frustrating tip if you happen to see only one cormorant by itself and can't compare!). It has a beautiful sheen. So shiny is likely a Pelagic.
  • If the Pelagic has breeding plumage, it has a white patch on each side of its rump when it flies.
  • The Double-crested sometimes heads well inland. It is the only cormorant to do so.
  • Young Double-crested birds have white chests.
  • The Brandt's cormorant has a brilliant blue patch under its beak in breeding plumage. I only have ever seen this with a high-powered scope.
  • A young Brandt's cormorant has a buffy chest with a sort of "y" shape. I think my photographs show a Brandt's.

Cormorant Life

When I was very young, I read a novel, which may have been The Pearl, that mentioned a fisherman coaxing a slim-necked bird to dive into the water and catch fish. Growing up with cardinals and robins, I could not imagine a fish seeing into dark water, darting and swimming fast enough to catch fish. I still considered this an exotic bird I might never see until I moved to California.

Today in Japan and other Asian countries, fishermen still sometimes use this traditional way of fishing. Terrific photos at a travel photo site show fishermen lighting fires to attract fish and the cormorants diving to catch fish. I love the photos that show the bird's jagged feathers dark in front of the background of the spiky flames.

Cormorant Haiku

A few of my own haiku about this beautiful bird:

searching fish unseen
cormorant silks
through deepest water

rocky slope--
cormorant waits
for its place to dive

bass clef--
jagged-cape bird dives
to deep notes


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