by Paul Cormacain
THE cormorant was fishing quite close inshore. On the first glimpse of him I thought he was a diver because it seemed his bill was pointing upwards in the manner of a diver.
But I quickly realised my mistake, probably because I wished a diver at this time of year. If it had been, it would have been a breeding red-throated diver, a most unusual bird in these waters. But sure a cormorant was just as good.
The bird has a moderately long bill, distinctly hooked at tip, and sits very upright in the water. It does not really resemble a diver, but I allowed my imagination to run riot for a second. The only bird which might be confused with a cormorant is a shag, but a second glance is usually sufficient to tell them apart. The cormorant has a white chin, and the sides of its face are also white. The shag is slightly smaller, with a re-curved crest on the top of its head. Usually you see these birds in the water, fishing for dinner, and the only highly visible parts are neck and head.
This cormorant was in a small harbour on the north coast. It would dive, then re-appear on the surface some metres away. Under water periods lasted about half a minute, although the bird has been known to stay down for over a minute. Each time it came to the surface it looked around, then dived again quickly. As the bird usually brings its catch to the surface to eat, it would appear that the fishing was bad that day. Having said that, it is known that the cormorant sometimes catches small fish under water and just swallows them. So was this bird catching small fish and swallowing them underwater, or was it a bad day for fish?
The cormorant is a widely distributed species. It is to be found in Indian, Ethiopian, Australian, Palaeartic and eastern Neartic regions. That is what one of my highly acclaimed books says, but I do not remember seeing the birds in any of those regions. Most folk would say that our cormorant is the normal one, but that a slightly different one may be found. It is sometimes called the southern cormorant, and the scientifis name is slightly different Two words are the same and one word is different. Just to confuse us even further, it used to be that the shag was called the green cormorant
The cormorant came to the surface again, and this time it had a large flatfish in its bill. We had the glasses on it, but could not distinguish what type of flattie it had. It is known to eat plaice and flounder, among other flatfish, but the fish was moving and being moved too much to allow identification.
The cormorant kept shaking its head, to help in the eating game. The normal way of eating is to get the fish in the correct position, then swallow it head first. The flatfish was objecting. It kept wriggling, and you thought that any minute that surplus of energy would allow it to escape from the jaws of the bird.
The bird held tight. This was dinner, and it liked its dinner. The fish was shaken up and down and from left to right. And it kept wriggling. The fish was slapped on the surface of the water, but that neither broke its back nor its spirit. It continued to wriggle like mad.
Then the cormorant put its head under water. No big deal, that. The fish was now under water, but sure is that not where a fish lives? But I remember reading that a fish needs to be moving under water, even if very slowly, for it takes movement for the water to go through its mouth and gills, and that is essential for its well being. Then the cormorant raised its head again, and the flat fish was still wriggling. But I felt that its wriggling was now less energetic than before. Again it was shaken up and down and from left to right, but it still kept wriggling.
Then the fish got another ducking. When he came up again he looked less happy than before. More to the point. He was less energetic. Suddenly the cormorant managed to `fold' him in two. Then the fish became more manageable for the bird's big gob. The cormorant gave a big gulp, and the poor flatfish descended down the mighty throat. But it was no good feeling sorry for the fish, no more than it was good feeling happy for the bird. Humans eat vegetables and meat, some fish eat smaller fish, gulls will eat just about anything, and cormorants. eat fish. Nature planned it this way, and a greater power gave it its blessing.
The bird had enough for a while. He struggled to raise his full body from the surface of the water, eventually took to the wing. He flew slowly in a great circle, glided in to land on a long rock some metres off the shore some distance away. He clumsily landed, then commenced a long lazy break. Low and behold, on the same rock were eleven other cormorants, presumably all stuffed with fish and taking a break till the next fishing session.
Saturday 31st July: Moth Workshop at Castleward, more from Butterfly Conservation 028 9079 6979.
Saturday 31s July to Tuesday 3rd August: The RSPB invites all to Rathlin to see the last, for this year, of the seabirds. Give it a call on 028 9049 1547
Saturday 7th and Sunday 8th August: Oxford Island Wildlife 2004. A huge range of events over the two days, contact the Island for more, on 028 3832 2205
Sunday 15th August: Butterfly Outing to Rostrevor Park, with Trevor Boyd, 1100. Why not phone him for details, 028 9185 2276.
Monday 16th to Friday 20th August: Children's Wildlife Hour at 1430, more from Oxford Island on 028 3832 2205
Saturday 28th August: Butterfly Outing from Cnocagh Monument, east Antrim at 1030 with Adrian Kernohan, who will tell you more on 028 93355565.