By Sallie van Arsdale
A cormorant splashes down beside my kayak. It swims alongside and is so close I could touch the wet, black feathers. Its eyes are blue-green, its beak orange tipped with a hook. Quickly it dives under the boat. Surfacing on the other side, it is again within reach.
Only recently have we been favored with this friendly behavior. There is, of course, an explanation; the cormorant is fishing. We are in shallow water on a sunny day. Our kayaks cast shadows which seem to help the birds see their small darting prey. Apparently, too, cormorants have learned that kayaks are harmless. They see them nearly every day in the bay off Plymouth Harbor so familiarity has overcome fear, at least for the local, winged divers.
Although cormorants are experts at fishing, a successful catch can take many tries. Once it occurs, to see a bird with a beak full carefully maneuver its captured prize into swallowing position and gulp it down is fascinating. One is tempted to call out, “Congratulations!” despite the fate of the fish.
Cormorants have to be accomplished underwater swimmers to survive. Wide, webbed feel propel their streamlined bodies through speedy twists and turns in pursuit of their agile food source. As a good example of double use, the same feet serve as flying brakes. When a cormorant on the wing comes in for a water landing, each wide-spread foot is thrust out in front to hit the water first and slow forward motion. The technique works perfectly and is fun to watch, especially when the splashdown is next to you.
Our cormorant encounters are a continuing pleasure—even a privilege. After all, how often does one share, if just for seconds, a degree of closeness with a wild creature?
Photos courtesy of Lou Newman