A Pelagic Cormorant – my monthly story in 48 North

I always try to write these things from a recent personal experience. This one came from a site visit to Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands, and, while we were waiting for the ferry to shove off, we watched about a dozen pelagic cormorants on the pilings right outside our window. They had a playful look to their smallish heads, almost like they were having fun diving around the backwash of the prop keeping the boat against the ferry pier. Maybe they were – it looked like the fishing was easy.as the boat disoriented the fish. Seen close, I was amazed to see the variety of colors in the ‘black’ birds.


Three cormorant species live in the Salish Sea. A year ago, I wrote about the largest, the double-crested cormorant and now here’s number two. At first, the pelagic cormorant seems jet black, but that’s certainly not true. I like these birds very much because, as the light changes, their iridescent colors change from purple to red and green. The pelagic is smaller than the double-crested. It has a thinner neck, much smaller head and very thin bill. Almost snake-like might be a good descriptor. Two white flank patches and, during breeding, a red beard also help with identification. A third variety, the Brant’s cormorant sports a tan cheek patch.


Per-sketch before the painting.

I admire these birds for their fishing skills. Recently we were on one of the San Juan ferries and I watched a group fishing and occasionally fly to nearby pilings for rest. They were all very chatty with each other and seemed curious about us. Some were below at the base of the pilings and were diving in the turbulent backwash for disoriented pile perch. Almost every dive produced a fish, and as the birds surfaced, we could see some quickly toss the flapping fish upwards, then swallow it headfirst as it came back down. This way, the fish went down those skinny throats with scales backwards and fins retracted. Stomach juices did the rest. To help all this, cormorants ride low in the water thanks to solid bones that aid in long dives. A very successful bird!

Thanks for reading this week.
Larry Eifert

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