Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Bonnet

I find double-crested cormorants to be ugly and elegant, friendly and cantankerous, colorful and drab. Maybe they are like an avian 'Rhorshack-test' for our souls. 

We can focus on the richly-hued feathers of their folded wings...

...or we can dwell on the bone-colored bill, shaped like a pirate's hook, with which they lift their slimy prey from Davey's locker.

In our first photo we saw them sitting side by side in peaceful repose. I seldom see one without another nearby. On one hand they seem to love companionship but their need for personal space overrides all. Their normal spacing is slightly more than one neck length. To a cormorant, the best defense is a pre-emptive strike. 

I suspect the ragged look of this bird's tail may have been caused by the nips of its fellow cormorants. What I do not understand is why they consistently try to land so close to one another. Maybe a tight landing is an attempt to intimidate the seated bird and chase it off its perfect perch.

Cormorants are diving birds so they spend a great deal of time flying near the water's surface. Dipping their wingtips in the water would create drag and waste energy, so they avoid deep wing strokes. Whenever I see a cormorant flying I am reminded of the motion we use when we tickle someone. There is lots of action but the arc of the movement is very shallow. It makes me grin to watch a cormorant tickle the sky.

Often folks ask if white-breasted cormorants are a different species. Besides double-crested cormorants, we can also find the thinner-billed, pelagic and Brandt's cormorants on saltwater in Washington. We generally see only the double-crested on freshwater.

The light-breasted ones are immature double-crested cormorants. 

You can only see these birds and read the name so many times before you begin to ask, Where are the double crests?

This is the same bird we saw in a couple of the previous photos. The two little crests are only visible at the right angle and if the bird or the wind decides to raise them. 

Among the cormorants sitting above the UW baseball field yesterday, I could only see crests on about one in five birds. 

Sometimes the crests can make a sudden appearance.

I should also mention that the crests are for the most part a seasonal beautification - in order to attract mates. Clearly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Only in the last two weeks have I seen white crested cormorants on Union Bay. I knew they existed from internet photos, but I always thought they must live in some far off place - like Alaska.

I have not found any documentation which explains why some of the double-crested cormorants have crests of white while others have black.

Maybe we are in the middle of an evolutionary change. Could one color or the other be a mutation which will provide that portion of the population an advantage.

Are white crests the new 'in-color' among double-crested cormorants? In either case, if you want to see the latest fashion you will need to visit Union Bay in the near future. Cormorants are a bit like humans, it is only for a short time in Spring that they show off their Easter Bonnets. 

Have a Happy Easter on Union Bay...where cormorants flaunt their bonnets!


Going Native:

Without a functional Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with local, native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. My hope is that we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to plant native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. My intention is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. 

Can you identify which of these Washington natives are most likely to be found on Union Bay?




Scroll down for answers


The first photo shows a double-crested cormorant. I intentionally left the exposure rather dark to focus attention on the most colorful parts of the bird. During breeding season the inside of their mouths can turn blue. This seems to emphasize the bright green eyes and the orangish-yellow bill base.

The birds in the second photo are also cormorants. They are each of a different saltwater species. The bird on the left is a Brandt's cormorant - notice the thick neck and the light blue-ish patch below the bill. The bird on the right is a pelagic cormorant - notice the thin elegant bill, the flash of white on the flank and the long tail.