Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Stopping by Our Pond on a Pre-winter’s Morning

Winter is close upon us, the nights and early mornings brisk, as they say in New England. To the west and east of our valley, dense fog layers over and between the hills, Chinese ink paintings for our contemplation during morning and evening drives. Coming in from the M lot one morning, the ponds were grey with the reflected sky. Six cormorants stood along the concrete rim of the island, black-clad sentinels for an invisible castle behind them. There had been a whole slew of them a few weeks ago, more than ever before, it seemed. Aside from those six standing on the island’s edge, I counted at least four more in the water— though it’s difficult to get an accurate head count the way they lingered underneath, popping up just as others popped down.

I went back by the ponds around noon-time that day for a bit more cormorant-watching and ran into Carol Hall, Administrative Coordinator in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and bird enthusiast. We swapped tales as we ate our respective leftovers-for-lunch in the weak sunshine. She told me she’d counted anywhere from 8 to 15 cormorants over the previous week and showed me some pictures she’d taken of them, both in the pond and out. Along the bank of the island in front of us, the cormorants stretched and held out their wings like damp feathered overcoats linings loaded with goodies for the indiscriminate bargain hunter: knock-off watches, oyster-shell rings, mackerel tails, seaweed necklaces.

These are Double Crested cormorants, dark-bodied, with a pale orange around the eyes and beak, sometimes a dull yellow sliding down the neck like a meager ascot. They hold their wings out in order to dry them, for the top layers of their feathers are not as waterproofed as those of other water birds. This gives the cormorant deeper dive capabilities; the Double Crested is known to dive close to 25 feet down — other species of cormorants dive even further.

They are amusing birds, these cormorants, endearing and lithe, true swimmers. They are not buoyant birds, like the more staid and stately ducks and geese that float on the water like ships, flipping their back ends up as they scrabble under the water’s surface for sustenance, rarely submerging themselves completely. Cormorants are the submarines, their backs just under the water’s surface as they cruise the pond in small flotillas, their distinctively hooked beaks pointed skyward, like periscopes-up! Or as if in salute. They’ll be there one moment and gone the next, gathering themselves up and shooting under water, sometimes two or three in unison, having spotted some sort of succulent pond snack. They are under long enough that we begin to wonder and then up they surface, almost bouncing a bit as they hit the air, a fish tail sliding quickly down their beak and gullet. They can be quite far from their point of entry into the water, and if Carol or I didn’t see them dive under, it was un-nerving to see them suddenly pop, pop, pop! Up on the pond in front of us. It tickled my funny bone, and made me giggle, even when I didn’t think I had much to giggle about.

The double crests, for which this species is named, are white feathers projecting out over the eyes and above the head, only visible during courtship and mating, which takes place in early spring, further north and inland from here, often in colonies of thousands. This small batch was probably scoping out some over-wintering spots and will move on once the fishing gets slim, as it’s bound to do. Because they aren’t buoyant and their top feathers are wettable, cormorants are quite vulnerable to oil spills; they get soaked to their skins, the weight of the oil immobilizing their wings, pulling them under to drown.

So I am glad they were here, even if only for a short spell, for they have escaped the oil sludge from the tanker that has contaminated the Bay and the San Francisco and Marin beaches. It is some comfort to know that we have a respite station. For the time that they were here we have enjoyed their presence and appreciated their grace and humor. And they in turn might remember that our ponds were a safe haven during a very bad fall for ocean life in the Bay Area.

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