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.

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Colonies of Nesting Cormorants

Colonies of Nesting Cormorants
April 2018

I’ve been periodically visiting two nesting colonies of two different species of cormorants: Brandt’s and Pelagic. There is a third species found in our area – the Double-crested Cormorant – but I haven’t seen many around here and I certainly have not seen their nests. (See photos of them from Morro Bay: https://carlabrennan.com/2015/05/24/april-2015-%e2%80%a2-morro-bay-ca/.) Each species has their own preference for nest location and material.

Brandt’s Cormorant. They nest close together on rocky islands or headlands, often on the flat top of a rock face. On my most recent visit, most of the nests were completed with one parent sitting patiently on top as if incubating. When I was there in February, the cormorants were just standing around small disorganized piles of seagrass waiting to steal some from an absent neighbor.

I did catch a pair in the act of mating. (See below.) Another cormorant was vigorously doing it’s mating display. (Head up, tail up, wings up and curled.) So I guess this means that some birds were not yet impregnated. I had hoped to get a glimpse of eggs but either they haven’t been laid yet or were obscured by the sitting bird. There are about 25 nests.

Despite the wild and remote look of this nesting site, it is actually just below a parking lot and scenic lookout. I took the photos from a heavily used sidewalk next to a road and houses.

Brandt’s Cormorants are most easily identified by their bright blue breeding throat patch. They also have a few spindly white feathers on their back and cheeks. (Here they are in February: https://carlabrennan.com/2018/02/06/vitamin-sea-and-butterflies-in-february/)

Pelagic Cormorant. Despite their name, these cormorants aren’t pelagic. (Pelagic means living on the open sea.) They are instead coastal, staying on shore, beaches, and cliffs. Their preferred nesting sites are on vertical cliffs overlooking the ocean. These cliffs have tiny, tiny ledges to build nests on. A very precarious place to bring up babies I would think. The upside to this arrangement is that no cautious predator can get to them. There are not as many Pelagic Cormorants here as I have seen in past years, but a few pairs appeared to be developing nests. My telephoto lens was at its max to get these photos.

Pelagic Cormorants are most easily identified by their red face and the white patches on their lower back. Their seemingly black bodies have a touch of green iridescence.

Video. You might want to watch this Nat Geo video of a cormorant pulling off remora from a whale shark in Mexico!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36-2AfSwRbE

Please do not reproduce any photographs without Carla’s permission.

 

Golden Gate Bridge From the Air

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This was taken on May 9th as I flew to San Francisco from Boston. Although I’ve made this journey many times, this was first time our route took us north of San Francisco and down the coast. From my window seat I got a good view of the Golden Gate Bride below. Although always stunning, this was my first time seeing the bridge from above.

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