Black-headed Seacrow

I guess I was destined to love birds from very early on in my life.

My one and only childhood home was(and still remains) a two story trackhouse built on the site of a former apricot orchard in Sunnyvale. I grew up on a court or cul-de-sac of sixteen family homes, built in 1970. We knew everyone on the court and are still friends with a fellow family. I still remember the single apricot tree in the backyard as a reminder of the ground’s agricultural past.

The street name was Cormorant Court. The developers named all the north-south streets after birds: Blackhawk, Albatross, Emperor, Crow, Eagle, Condor, Heron, Grosbeak etc. The west-east streets are mostly British place names: Inverness, Dunholme Jura, Liverpool, Lambeth, Londonderry etc.

There were many times in my youth where I had to spell “cormorant” for people who couldn’t arrange the consonances and vowels in right order and I also had to explain what a cormorant was. The Cambridge dictionary describes cormorant as: a large, black sea bird with a long neck and body. That seems just about right, although I might quibble with the word “sea”. The genus name, Phalacrocorax can be translated as bald-headed crow, referring to the dark plumage of most cormorants. The common name cormorants comes from the French meaning crow of the sea.

In honor of my home street I decided to do a spread about the cormorant. The cormorant is synonymous with water. Worldwide, there are 40 species of cormorants and shags. All cormorants feed on fish, by diving underwater from the surface where they catch their prey with large hooked beaks.

On the West Coast, there are three common cormorants: the double-crested, Brandt’s, and pelagic. Along with these three, there are three other species found in North America: the great, neotropic, and red-faced cormorant. The red-faced is not found in the Lower 48 but in coastal Alaska.

The double-crested cormorant is the largest cormorant in the west. It is commonly found inland, favoring freshwater. Brandt’s and pelagic are coast huggers and are almost always associated with saltwater. All three are common and easily seen.

I have recently seen a rare cormorant for the state of California. In fact I have seen two different individuals in two months. This is the Neotropic cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus). The first I had added to my California and Santa Cruz County list on December 11 at Pinto Lake.

Then on an outing for winter raptors with Grasshopper Sparrow to Robinson Road in Solano County, we went for the Neotropic that was found on the Christmas Bird Count in December. The raptors and mountain plovers were very scarce at Robinson Road so we made the 20 minute journey to Brannan Island Road in Sacramento County, just over the Sacramento River.

The Neotropic had been seen perched on a ruined crane barge. We found the barge and cormorants perched on the cables. With a short search we found the Neotropic perched among the larger double-crested cormorants. Lifer for Grasshopper and a new county bird for me! This was a first record for this species in Sacramento County.

Can you see which one of these cormorants is different from all the others?
The Neotropic cormorant on the right and a double-crested on the left.

Las Gallinas

Las Gallinas Sewage Ponds.

These three ponds in northern Marin County, hold many avian riches. On one side of the trail, you have the ponds with ducks, egrets, pelicans, and cormorants. On the other side you have fields with hawks, falcons, harriers, rails, and owls

The mammalian fauna is also rich with coyotes in the fields and river otters in the waters.

On one Sunday I circled the ponds with binos and sketchbook. A treat was a Merlin perched along the “Merlin Highway”. You rarely see merlins perched in trees, because these small feisty falcons are always   on the move, always moving with a purpose. So a stationary Merlin perched in a tree, scanning the fields for its avian prey, is a temptation that a birder-sketcher cannot pass up!

I then added two more field sketches of a great egret hunting in the reeds and a line of double-crested cormorants drying their feathers in the winter sun. To this I drew a map as a visual journal of my day at Las Gallinas.

Least Bittern

I’ve seen a few life birds in and around the ponds at Las Gallinas. One was a juju bird, that is a bird that I have consistently whiffed on. This bird is  seemingly a mystic ghost that has never filled the lens of my binoculars.  This bird had evaded my life list for years, but a visit to Las Gallinas never let’s me down. This was the secretive and diminutive least bittern. I saw this bird in the reeds on the eastern end of pond one.  Whenever I see a life bird I create a journal spread, and United States life bird No. 452 is the subject of the sketch above.