Cormorants win battles for food

Posted July 24, 2009, at 11:30 p.m.

Cormorants are a common sight along the coast and I often see them diving for food or standing with wings outstretched to dry. So when I caught a glimpse of one hunting for fish I almost turned away —until I noticed what it held in its beak as it surfaced.

Grasped in the dark bird’s beak was a huge flounder. I couldn’t believe the bird would attempt to consume it; it seemed impossible. The cormorant struggled to position the fish for swallowing, and I was afraid I’d be witness to an ugly scene if things didn’t go too well.

A black-backed gull — a consummate opportunist — was quick to assess the situation and swooped in to steal the fish from the cormorant’s beak. The cormorant saw it coming, and with a last, desperate lunge and gulp, swallowed the fish whole.

I could see its throat distend unbelievably as the fish traveled down its gullet.

The gull landed in the water, deprived of its easy meal, and the cormorant flicked a drop of water from the tip of its beak in what I was sure was a smug and victorious manner.

Shortly after that I witnessed another interaction between a cormorant and the resident ospreys.

The osprey nest sits atop a tall pole in a small cove near Spring Point. Both of the parents perched in the nest with their two chicks; it was a picture of domestic bliss, but not for long.

Suddenly one of the adult osprey began to call agitatedly. I scanned the sky, as this usually indicated another osprey was in the area, but then I noticed the parent peering down at the water around the nest. It abruptly dove toward a cormorant that had just surfaced.

The cormorant seemed to wait a dangerously long time to react. Just when I was sure the osprey was in striking distance, the cormorant — with seeming nonchalance — dove beneath the water’s surface. The osprey pulled up, trailing its talons in the water, and flew up to a piling.

I thought this threat would be enough to cause the cormorant to vacate the area — they can swim for quite a distance underwater — but no; soon the cormorant again surfaced nearby. This seemed to enrage the osprey, which flung itself into the air and dove on the cormorant again. Again, the cormorant dove at the last minute, almost as though it were taunting the bird of prey.

Bemused, I watched this scenario repeat itself several times. I wondered why the osprey would expend so much energy in harassing the cormorant. Both birds specialize in feeding on fish, so I wondered if it was defending its resource; or, as was the gull, perhaps the osprey was hoping to surprise the cormorant into dropping a fish.

There are six species of cormorants in North America; the most common and widespread is the double-crested cormorant, of which I’ve written above. The double-crest is in reference to tufts of feathers on the head that become conspicuous during a short time each year. A more reliable identification mark is the orange skin clearly visible on the throat and around the bill and eyes.

The only other cormorant found in the northeastern U.S. is the great cormorant, nearly identical to the double-crested but slightly larger and distinguished by a white patch on its throat and around its bill, and on its flanks.

Adults of both species are a deep, glossy black, while each of their young exhibit whitish underbodies and brown, speckled plumage on their backs and wings.

I was impressed with the cormorants after watching how they interacted with the gull and osprey.

I’ll be keeping an eye on them whenever I see them, wondering what I will discover next.

Those who may have bird stories or sightings to share may contact Chris Corio via e-mail at: bdnsports@bangordailynews.net

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