Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Cormorants Are on the Move
October 24, 2020
by Steve Grinley
If you are anywhere near the coast these days, you may notice large flocks of birds overhead moving south. At first you might think they are geese, but these birds travel in broken lines across the skies and don’t keep the strict formation of geese. These are cormorants, our summer resident double-crested cormorants, which are migrating in flocks that number fifty, or a hundred or more birds at a time. Margo and I counted numerous large flocks moving south one day this past week, including some long strings of more than two hundred birds. We saw thousands of cormorants that day.
Cormorants are fish eaters and are most often seen in the water diving for fish. Their long, thin necks give them a loon-like appearance, but they sit lower in the water and have a distinct hooked bill that they use to catch fish. Their feathers lack the oil to shed water, unlike loons and diving ducks, so you often see cormorants on land with their wings spread to dry.
Doug Chickering of Groveland shared his experience watching the migrating cormorants a dozen years ago and I thought I would share it again here:
“There are times when the very ordinary becomes quite extraordinary. Double-crested Cormorants are very common sights on Plum Island from spring to late fall. Some would even say they are too common. They fish the pools, sun themselves on the power lines over the Plum Island bridge, and dry themselves on points of land at Hellcat, Stage Island and in the marshes. They are colorless and numerous, and eventually tend to vanish into the background. When we decide to count the birds we find Cormorants are a pain and because we see them constantly fishing the shallow pools, we worry that they are pushing out other, more attractive species.
“Usually Cormorants are little more than a nuisance, but this morning at Plum Island they provided a spectacular scene. It is difficult to fully and adequately describe the sight of thousands of Double-crested Cormorants spread in long ragged formations above the western horizon on a Plum Island dawn. The sun has not yet pushed above the dunes; the sky is a pale but bright blue and the land below is just starting to take on definition.
“It takes a little bit to notice them at first; amorphous strings, moving south not in perfect symmetry but in long fluid strings with occasional clusters of birds in the forefront. The sheer number of them is impressive and they nearly spread the entire horizon. A soundless, relentless movement, an antique ritual as emblematic of the changing seasons as the scarlet leaves on the hillsides.
“Summer is gone and the winter moves in on the wings of migrating Cormorants.”
So keep your eyes to the sky these days and watch this migration spectacle as it happens above us. Soon, these summer cormorants will be replaced by the larger great cormorant. Great cormorants will winter here and fish the waters that the double-crested cormorants vacated.