Cormorant’s Breakfast

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Yesterday I made a short drive to Ft. Lowell Park.  It’s an urban park, only about 5 minutes from our home and, at first glance, it would appear to be a very unproductive place for wildlife photography.  Nearly all of the park consists of soccer fields, a baseball diamond, and tennis courts.  However, there is a small circular pond in the park — no more than 3 or 4 acres in size — and it is ringed with trees.  Ponds and trees in our arid community are wildlife magnets.

I was specifically searching for Vermilion Flycatchers to photograph and I walked slowly around the pond’s edge, looking up into the trees.  As I was doing so, I noticed a commotion in the pond and I paused my flycatcher search to watch and see what was going on.  There was a pair of Neotropic Cormorants in the pond, and they were actively diving for prey.  Each would bob to the surface for a few seconds, get its lungs full of air, then dive, sometimes for 30 seconds or more at a time.  Suddenly, one surfaced with a fish in its mouth.  I quickly trained my camera on the bird and got this image.

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The fish, a small catfish, is about three inches long.  The cormorant maneuvered the fish with its beak until it was pointed into the bird’s gullet, head first, then swallowed it whole.

Over the course of the next half hour I watched these cormorants dive repeatedly.  Every five minutes or so one would pop to the surface with a fish and, during the half hour that I observed them, the two birds consumed at least 10 fish.  From time to time one of the cormorants would attempt to steal a fish from the other — unsuccessfully in every case.

Just imagine, for a moment, how superbly evolved these cormorants are in order to do what I observed them to be doing.  They must have extraordinary lung capacity and circulatory systems in order to be able to actively chase fish while entirely submerged.  Their eyes must have evolved so that they can see well underwater, clearly enough to be able to track small fish in motion.  They must be extraordinarily strong swimmers, not just fast, but highly maneuverable in order to chase down little fish.  When one sees a cormorant on land, one really doesn’t appreciate any of the bird’s special skills.  Cormorants on land are ungainly looking birds.  But, they have special talents that we can barely appreciate.

Image made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f8 @ 1/500.

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