Great Cormorant, Bird of the Week XIII

Great cormorants (Phalacrorax carbo) can be found in every continent except South America and Antarctica. So I was not surprised to see one in the middle of Tokyo, in the birding hotspot of Shinobazu pond. There were several flying over the pond, but only one settled in full view in the middle of the pond. I examined it through my monster zoom, hoping that it was the Japanese cormorant, which I haven’t seen. But it was my auld acquantance, P. carbo. Interestingly, this is near the easternmost limit of the bird. It doesn’t cross large stretches of open water, so it isn’t found in the west coast of North America. Strangely, the route across the Bering strait is not taken, although it has hopped from northern Europe to Iceland, Greenland, and the east coast of North America, establishing breeding colonies in each of these places.

While I used the monster, The Family was trying to use her phone to get shots of the bird. It worked fairly well; she got an action shot of it flapping its wings dry. I’ve often wondered why a water bird like this has wettable wings. It seems that others have too. I found a paper which describes the paradox neatly: “Great cormorants should be constrained by water temperature. Surprisingly, it has the widest breeding distribution of all diving birds, and does not require more food.” The reason, as the paper finds, is that each feather has an outer part which wets instantly, and a core which remains waterproof. The air trapped in the core keeps the bird warm. The wettable outer part reduces its buoyancy, allowing it to sink faster when it dives.

An invitation

There aren’t many places on WordPress where bird watchers can share posts. If you post any photos of birds this week (starting today and up to next Monday), it would be great if you could leave a link in the comments, or a pingback, for others to follow. There is no compulsion to post a recent photo, but it would help others to know when and where you saw the bird. You might consider using the tag “Bird of the Week” in case people search for old posts using it. I hope you’ve had the time to look at what others have added this week and in the previous weeks.

Early birds

December was a month when I began to look back at the wonderful sightings of birds I’d had in the past year. Updating lists and filling in lifers (that is bird watchers’ jargon for first sightings of birds) I realized that I had an unusually large number in 2022. The Chestnut-capped babbler in the featured photo was one of my most recent.

But in that trip I’d also had my first sightings of an Upland pippit (left in the gallery above), a Himalayan rubythroat (middle) and a Yellow-breasted bunting (right). “Isn’t this unusual?” I asked. “We are making trips for birds now,” The Family reminded me, “we didn’t target special habitats earlier.” That is true. Much of my early list of birds was incidental. “We are also going with much better birders,” I added. Birding, like any other skill depends on practice, and there are people who spend all their days on it. It is good to travel with them, but that’s not how we started.

I decided to look back at my earliest photos. The oldest one I could find was of this Spotted owlet, taken in 2005 in Kanha National Park. That was our first trip to see wildlife, and it was wildly successful. We saw three tigers, one a mother with three cubs. Everything was new to us. Even the sight of the very common spotted deer could stop us in admiration. We later realized that the spotted owlet was not uncommon at all, but it stars as the only bird I have a photo of from that trip.

I bought my first camera with an electronic sensor soon after. It was an Olympus with a sensational optical zoom of 10. I realized quite quickly that you need to creep up on a bird even with that camera. Armed with this, I managed to get quite close to a Yellow-wattled lapwing in Ranthambore in the spring of 2006 (left). I didn’t know then that lapwings are a large family of birds. In summer that year, on a walk on the beach at Asilomar in California, I could approach a Brown pelican close enough for the photo in the center. That was the first pelican I saw. Later in the year, in Patna I took my first photo of a flying bird. That’s the Asian openbill you see at the right.

The Family and I became avid birdwatchers. I would look up tide tables, and once a month travel to the harbour areas of Mumbai to look at waterbirds. In 2007, before the terrorist attacks, all this was still accessible to the public. I learnt to tell the Great egret (left, above) from the Intermediate and Small. I saw flamingos for the first time (middle) and spent time learning to pick out the greater flamingos from the lesser. The two of us with one dinky pair of binoculars, that Olympus, and our first bird book, began to recognize Bar-tailed godwits (right), sandpipers, herons, and other water birds.

We also continued to travel. On our first visit to Bhutan we saw red-billed choughs (left, above) and their yellow-billed cousins for the first time. I learnt that there are different varieties of kingfishers, and the one you see above is called the White-breasted kingfisher. I never forgot the thrill of discovering its binomial: Halcyon smyrnensis. My list of corvids kept expanding, as I found that the family includes treepies. The one on the left above is a Rufous treepie.

We kept looking at birds wherever we travelled. A second trip to Bhutan in the spring of 2008 expanded our list enormously. In the panel above, you see a Russet sparrow (“There are so many different kinds of sparrows,” The Family said in wonder) and a Scarlet minivet from that trip. In summer on a visit to Ann Arbor, I spotted my first European starling.

In 2009 the first lifer I had was the strange bird called the Greater adjutant stork. I took the photo above near Guwahati’s biggest landfills. I realized that we had become birdwatchers, because hearing our taxi driver talk of a strange bird near the dump, we asked him to take us there. Later, in the more pleasant surroundings of Kaziranga national park I spotted my first Golden-fronted leafbird.

I guess I learnt that you can expand your list if you just spare a moment to look at birds while you travel. I noticed a Great cormorant and other water birds while visiting Kinkaku-ji, the temple of the golden pavilion, in Kyoto. On a visit to Sardinia, I took a photo of an Eurasian blackbird, another lifer. The numbers increase slowly. More than numbers, they are wonderful memories. Even the worst of photos can call back a lovely memory.

When you remember just a few birthday parties, anything resembling one seems like a grand thing. The Newphew was understandably excited about his coming “half birthday“, especially with an aunt willing to indulge every whim. Having heard of the pleasures of birding from his once-a-birder mom, he had asked for a day’s birding with his aunt. So off we went to Bhigwan near Pune for a full day’s birding: from before sunrise to after sunset.

The lake is extensive, created by the damming of the Bhima river at the Ujani village. Typically the backwater of a dam is known by the name of the dam, so this could have been called the Ujani lake. However, in this case the backwater is named Yashwant Sagar. But by a truly Alice-in-wonderland twist, most birders know this as Bhigwan lake, by the name of the town of Bhigwan on the lake. The lake covers around 350 square kilometers of area. When the dam was finished in 1980, it submerged 82 villages and their surrounding agricultural land. Now trees and electric pylons break the surface of the water, providing perches for the tens of thousands of birds, many migratory, which come to this lake every winter.

The Newphew is exactly at the age where he finds it hilarious that the white branches of trees are normal branches covered with bird droppings. He was excited by the masses of black cormorants on the “poo trees”. And he grew even more excited when we pointed out the few great cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) sitting among the darker Indian cormorants (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis).

The excitement multiplied when he located the single oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster, aka Indian snakebird) sitting on one of the trees filled with cormorants. One of the characteristics of eight years olds is their discovery that they can be contrary. He had packed his own binoculars when he packed his backpack for the trip, but he’d refused to use them on the boat. Their cloak of contrariness falls away when they are excited. The Newphew dropped his act of contrariness and stared at these birds with his binoculars.

With the breaking of the ice, he was ready to see more. And we saw much more: grey herons (Ardea cinerea), northern shovelers (Spatula clypeata), black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa), Eurasian coots (Fulica atra), Asian openbills (Anastomus oscitans), Indian spot-billed ducks (Anas poecilorhyncha), an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) at breakfast, and many more. Before lunch he sat down and, with our help, made a list of all the birds that he’d seen in the morning. He couldn’t stop telling everyone that he’d seen 58 different species before breakfast, including the very rare sighting of a Taiga bean goose (Anser fabalis).

There was a session of bird watching planned for the evening and another safari at night. This was the height of excitement for him. At the age of 8 1⁄2 he was tasting La Dolce Vita. By the time night fell and he helped to pin down an Indian nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus) in crossed beams of light he was in a state of extreme hyper-alertness. He took time to fall asleep, but then slept through a rooster’s untimely calls that kept us awake at night.

And for us too, this was a day of excitement. Not just because we’d seen almost 90 species of birds in the day, but also because we’d shared this world with a new person. Our familiar natural world is part of the great succession of life on the planet. As we make it uninhabitable for the life that shares the cenozoic era with us, our time is as limited as the species we help to wipe out. Hopefully, by making enough of the screen-bound generation into nature lovers, we can postpone the great extinction of our times and the resulting birth of a post-human earth.

Around the World in 30 Days (4)

This was my second time in the US. After the Smoky mountains I took a zigzag path to Florida. I had no real plan except to take some time from work to make a pilgrimage to Cape Kennedy, to see the place from which the longest trip in human history was made. But some people I met up with suggested a trip to the Everglades. So we piled into a car and drove down to the National Park.

A walk through the park would have been rewarding enough for me, the sight of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) hanging from trees was so amazing. It was still a while before the world wide web would replace reference books, so it was not till that December that I had time to sit down and figure out that this was not moss, but a flowering plant, distantly related to pineapples.

It was possible to take a boat ride through the river. I was glad we decided to do that, because it was one of the most instructive rides I had. There were lots of turtles and alligators to be seen, and this picture of an alligator asleep with its snout resting on the back of a turtle was something that remained in my mind. I was surprised to look at the picture again and discover that my actual photo was not so good.

It would be decades before I began bird watching. This must have been my first time out spotting birds. As the launch puttered past stately mangroves, the guide pointed out various birds. I think the photo above was of a cast of vultures. Looking at it now along with a checklist of the birds of the Everglades, I think they were turkey vultures (Cathartes aura). I didn’t remember that at all.

This bird drying itself on a fallen mangrove does not seem to be a darter. My money is on it being a Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), simply because it is the most common of cormorants in the Everglades. But it could be Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus). I can’t remember, and from this photo there is no way to tell. It would be another twenty years before I learnt to take multiple photos of every bird I saw so that I could identify it later.

The bird in the center of this photo is a great egret (Ardea alba), a common bird found everywhere. I wouldn’t usually take a picture of it these days, but it kind of anchors this landscape well. This picture captures the impression of the Everglades that I hold in my memory: forest, swamp, birds, and rivers.

I eventually went to Cape Kennedy but didn’t take my camera. I can’t believe how seldom I would carry my camera thirty years ago. I found that there was a shuttle launch the next day, and was sad I would miss it because I would be boarding my flight home at roughly that time. Incredibly, soon after my flight took off, the captain announced a space shuttle to port. I was next to a window, and I looked out to see the space shuttle Atlantis. It had just taken off for its mission of 15 November, 1990. For a while I could see this ball of fire flying parallel to our path, and then it veered off and was lost in the haze of the atmosphere. I couldn’t have planned a better to start the last flight of my journey around the world.