Even in the midst of a Maine winter in January, nature has beautiful scenery and wildlife surprises. A nice sighting of a great cormorant came into view as a friend explored along the Ocean Drive this week. In the summer we frequently see common cormorants near the shores sitting on rocks and docks as they dry their wings. You also often see them swimming about looking for fish. At this colder season the common cormorants are in the south where it is warmer. The birds are similar, but the great cormorant is larger. It is the largest of the six cormorants found in North America.
The great cormorant is a large chunky bird with a large, chunky neck and they sit low in the water. They seem to generally have a heavy-set look. Their head is blocky. If you suspect you are seeing a cormorant it is most apt to be the great cormorant at this time of year that would be in our local waters in February. Their bill is hooked for it is used to extract fish from crevices in underwater rocks. The great cormorant dives from the surface with a small leap in pursuit of food and dives deeper than a common cormorant that is only able to dive to 30 feet. Both cormorants have to sit and dry their wings after diving unlike loons and ducks that do not have to do this.
Although similar in appearance the great cormorant is definitely larger than the common cormorant but it is smaller than a pelican. I think I would describe them as being between a crow and a goose. Adults are blackish with a purple sheen. Breeding birds do show a square patch of white on the thigh and neck feathers. Juveniles are brownish with white feathers on throat and belly. At this season, however, the great cormorants seen do not have the white feathers. These cormorants fly on strong wings and with loon like wing beats.
The Ocean Drive and along the shore at Schoodic are two good places to look for them this month. Winter birding is a chilly activity but rewarding.
Eagles seriously hunt around wherever these cormorants nest. Formerly, great cormorants did not nest in New England but in recent years they have been found nesting here.
This cormorant is the one that is often used in China by fishermen. The bird wears a collar around its neck that prevents it from swallowing any fish it catches. The fishermen take the fish and then sell them or eat them. The bird, of course, gets to keep a fish every now and then so it keeps fishing. I watched them do this when I was in China a few years ago. The men carried two birds on a pole stretched across their shoulders. It was an ancient scene to see!
Look now in any of our harbors and you may get to watch the common loons catching their fish there now. In the winter, loons can be fun to watch as they dive and catch food in our local harbors. Even on a cold day you can watch from your warmer car. Watching them dive and come up with food of some kind can be quite interesting. My favorite story from this activity has always been when I saw an eider duck laboriously trying to swallow whole, and eventually doing so, a sea urchin. I could almost hear a sigh of relief when the bird finally got the prickly meal in its gullet. If you’ve ever held a sea urchin in your hand you know how sharp it is. Imagine trying to swallow one whole! Once down the bird’s throat the gullet takes over and its special gizzard does its work of grinding this food so the bird benefits from it. As I looked at the bird swallowing this prickly object I could almost hear it groaning and then sigh with relief once it was down.
I once watched a great blue heron catch and then swallow a big frog. I was both fascinated with watching the scene but did feel a bit sad for the frog in the bird’s neck fighting to get out of its predicament for I like frogs. You just can’t begrudge any natural wildlife whatever food it is eating in the wild. Just be sure your domestic pets and other animals are safely housed and fed.
This light covering of snow makes it a good time to look for bird tracks. It’s too cold for the tracks melt and you follow some interesting trails and see what the bird or mammals might have been doing. Grouse tracks are especially interesting to me for these birds are equipped in the winter with built in snow shoes. In the fall comb-like projections grow on either side of the bird’s toes. This doubles the surface area and helps support them on the newly fallen snow. By following the bird’s trail you may find where it has been roosting. From any tracks and wing prints left for you to see you might find be able to reconstruct what might have gone on right there. Look carefully whenever you are out walking in the winter woods or along the beach.
Send any questions, photos or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.