Good morning, bird lovers. If you live on the central coast and you spend time at the magical place known as the edge of the continent, then birds are part of your daily vision. Whether strolling, running and recycling along West Cliff Drive, there is non-stop bird action. It could be chains of pelicans gliding in and out of the fog, gulls circling in the wind or large groups of cormorants flying in a straight line formation. That last group is the aviary organization we’re going to peruse today.
As I was walking along the cliff last week I noticed the cormorants hanging on their usual shelf just south of Natural Bridges. A observant friend pointed out that they were nesting and I was immediately intrigued. As I watched the females dust and clean around the nests I noticed the white objects they were sitting on. Eggs, glorious eggs. So I ran home, had a piece of toast, did a few push ups and then grabbed my camera and starting jump shooting away.
I see Brandt’s Cormorants every day and it got me to wondering, what is their story? What turns them on, what makes them tick, what are their names and on what streets do they live? So here’s the scoop. They are a medium sized bird who, like myself, have a sleek black body. This group is not to be confused with the double crested cormorant, because as we know, 4 out of 5 dentists recommend the double crested for their patients who chew gum.
Brandt’s Cormorants are common in California; over 3/4 of the world’s population resides here and have second homes in Palm Springs. Despite the high cost of living, the largest numbers are in central California. The bird is named after J. F. Brandt, a Russian naturalist who first described the bird in 1838 and first spelled it correctly in 1839.
Along the central coast hundreds of Brandt’s Cormorants are often seen flying in long lines near the water’s surface as they furiously flock to their feeding ground and doctor’s appointments. A group of cormorants has many collective nouns, including “a flight of cormorants”, “gulp of cormorants”, ” rookery of cormorants”, “sunning of cormorants”, a “swim of cormorants” and my personal favorite, a “sh**load of cormorants.”
Brandt’s Cormorants are colonial nesters, not to be confused with Eliot Nesters. A breeding adult has bright blue skin under its bill which is gray in nonbreeding season because gray goes with everything. The male Brandt’s Cormorant chooses the nest site, puts down a deposit and attracts the female to it. Once paired, they build a circular nest on the ground of seaweed, algae, grass, hash, moss, weeds, seaweed, sticks, rubbish and leggos. The male gathers the nest material and the female builds the nest while the male then watches sports on TV. Pairs may reuse the nest, adding more material and perhaps a second level or a deck in the following years. Both the male and female incubate the eggs, and both regurgitate food for the young, which is something I never understood my parents doing. When the babies are born, they are like I was most of my freshman year at Syracuse, naked and helpless.
Under breeding conditions, the adult Brandt’s Cormorant is very impressive with white plumes on the head and an exotic display of a colorful blue throat pouch. Here on the central coast of California, the displays and the NCAA tournament are underway in March-April, eggs are laid in during the NBA playoffs in April-May, youngsters are in the nest as baseball takes center stage in June-July and battles for custody and visitation rights get underway in August. When the eggs hatch, the youngsters look almost reptilian. It will take six weeks for them to grow to full size before they fully mature and start playing one parent against another.
So that’s it for part one of the Brandt Cormorant Family Saga. I will be watching those nests along West Cliff as closely as voting officials in Florida for when those youngsters hatch. I’ve seen photos of the babies and they are stranger looking than a Jerry Springer all-star team. So enjoy the nesting action and we’ll catch you on Wednesday. And remember to extend your hands on defense for deflections. Later, aloha and I’m out.