Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Another Day in the Life of Brandt’s Cormorants

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July 6, 2018.
West Cliff Drive, Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz, CA.

You may be getting tired of the ongoing saga of the cormorant nesting colony. But I am loving following their growth, life cycle and idiosyncratic behavior.

Much had change from the week before. The colony cliff site was noticeably less populated although there still were a few chicks, several adults sitting on nests and general activity. Last week there had been six juveniles standing on the beach below. This week I counted 35. These congregations of juveniles are called creches. The young birds were much more active than before.

Many were experimenting entering the water, swimming, diving, playing together, and then returning to land. Some were obviously inexperienced and got tossed and tumbled by the waves. As one juvenile walked out of the sea onto the sand it’s feet were hit by the next incoming wave and it was thrown completely backward into the foam.

I watched at least six adults climb out of the water to feed their young. Although they may have several offspring, only one is fed at a time. Sometimes a unrelated bird would start to beg for food but the adult would aggressively chase it away. These feedings are captured in a variety of photos below. Honestly, it makes me gag to watch them!

People walking by stopped and asked me what kind of birds they were. I pointed out the colony, the nests and the juveniles below. If you watched for only a few minutes, nothing special seemed to be happening. But, as is the case in nature, if you stay still, observe carefully and are patient you begin to see nuanced, amusing and unexpected behaviors.

Near the creche was a small ledge about 3 feet high on the cliff face. I called this the “practice ledge”. The juveniles would periodically attempt to fly onto the ledge. One bird tried twice only to fall back into the sand. Others were successful. There is no way these birds could make it back to their colony 30 feet above!

Many juveniles seemed interested in rearranging the seaweed on the beach. They would pick up pieces, drag them along and then deposit them elsewhere. Occasionally one would get a mouthful of seaweed and take it into the water. At other times one would come out of the water with a new fresh clump of seaweed. I am guessing this mimics nest building behavior. But they did not seem to know why they are doing it and were just entertaining themselves.

I was fortunate to watch a juvenile’s first launch from the colony. With his wings outspread, he not so much flew, but plummeted down the cliff, landing with an awkward “plop” into the waves below. He then began to swim furiously but was caught by the swells and currents and driven to some rocks offshore. The young bird scrambled onto a rock, probably relieved to find some terra firma again. Eventually a large wave knocked him into the water again and he found his way to shore to join the other juveniles in the creche.

Please do not reproduce photographs without permission.

This gallery contains 25 photos

Babies Are Growing Fast!

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West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA, May 13 – June 1, 2018

The baby cormorants are exploding in size, seemingly overnight. There are a few small newly hatched chicks but most are nearly the height of their parents. They do not have flight feathers yet but they sure like to exercise their underdeveloped wings. Still covered in fuzzy gray feathers with some white spots they are quickly darkening in color and will soon be sleek. The rock ledge is crowded with families and most birds stand nearby, but not in, their now too small nests.

I also discovered two nesting California Gulls among the blooming iceplants just above the cormorants. I have yet to see any baby gulls. These gull are actually the biggest predator of cormorant eggs and small chicks. Now most chicks are larger than the gulls.

I will include photos from May 13, May 18, May 27 and June 1. You can see the striking difference in the size of the babies. In one photo from May 18 you will see a brown immature Brandt’s cormorant from last years brood. It’s the only juvenile I have seen while visiting this site.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without my permission. Thank you!

 

This gallery contains 22 photos

The Babies are Hatching!

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May 12, 2018, West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA

The eggs at the Brandt’s Cormorant colony are beginning to hatch! Gray, reptile looking chicks are showing their heads and begging for food. Many of the pairs are still incubating eggs. Both parents spend time on the eggs/ hatchlings. Photos a bit blurry, but you can see the babies.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission!

 

 

This gallery contains 12 photos

Coupling Cormorants and Migrating Monarchs in February

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Coupling Cormorants and Migrating Monarchs in February
2/5/2018

Walking on West Cliff Drive on the Westside of Santa Cruz, I sought the Brandt’s cormorants I had seen a few days earlier. Cormorants are common and plentiful so most people simply ignore them. But when I saw a group of cormorants close together on a rock ledge, I knew something was up. Sure enough, closer examination revealed it was a small rookery of nesting birds. Or at least birds getting ready to nest.

Numerous piles of seaweed were placed a few feet apart. Some birds sat on the messy disorganized mounds of ocean plants while others stood nearby protecting their small territory. When a bird flew off to feed or it looked the other way, another would snatch a beak full of fibers. If one got caught in the act, noisy squabbling and beak jabbing  ensued.

Their breeding hormones had transformed their throats into a vivid cerulean blue that matched their eyes. White stringy feathers sprouted from their heads and backs, contrasting their sleek black bodies. They impressed each other with ritualized courtship behavior: heads thrown back, tails skyward, wings curled and vibrating. Sometimes they would just shake their heads vigorously, mouths open. Below, waves crashed against the cliff.

To see a video of a Brandt’s cormorant displaying go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lo_3aAL3geo

And see a nest material theft in progress: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KP1rO4GfHU

I plan to visit this colony regularly to watch them build actual viable nests, lay eggs and raise young.

On my way to my car, I spotted a snowy egret playing in the surf. I swear that was what it was doing. Without any apparent attempt to feed or do anything practical, the egret would walk into the oncoming waves, enjoy the flowing foam around its legs then lift upward quickly when then water became too deep. It then flew back toward the cliffs and started the game all over again.

Then onto Soldiers Field to check out the Monarch butterfly situation. I was surprised to see them still there, energetically flying about in the warm sunny air. No doubt they won’t be around much longer.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com. You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones): https://www.etsy.com/shop/stonesandbones

This gallery contains 21 photos