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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.
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The Prairie and the Neotropic

I have often said that birding is a type of madness. Even more so if it’s a county bird you’re after because this is a species that I have seen many times before but not in Santa Cruz County!

I had missed out on the wintering prairie falcon on the southern edge of Santa Cruz County near Riverside Road. I returned, for the third time, to see a sandy falcon with dark wingpits. I pulled off Riverside Road to scan the pastures, like I’d done three times before. The morning was sunny and clear with blue skies. It was very chilly with the temps hovering in the mid 30s. My hands where numb and for the life of me I couldn’t find my second glove. But what warmed me, was the large hawk circling above the pasture in beautiful morning light. It was the overwintering ferruginous hawk.

But there was no prairie falcon in the air or on any fenceposts so I moved east down the road towards the county line.

In the field, on almost every fence post, where turkey vultures, warming themselves in the morning sun. A lone red-tailed hawk was on a post. Further north, near the base of the hills, was a growing kettle of turkey vultures, rising in the air.

With the naked eye, I could see a bird circling with the vultures. It was much, much lighter compared to the vulture’s black livery. I raised my binoculars and here was my county bird: prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus)! The falcon stooped on a vulture below it, practice hunting I suppose. The falcon continued to circle with the vultures and then peeling off in powered flight as it headed towards the hills to the northwest.

Fence sitting turkey vultures in beautiful morning light.

With the prairie falcon in the bag it was now time to look for the extremely rare visitor that was first seen at Pinto Lake two days before. It was spotted again yesterday after some local birders rented a boat to head out into the lake (hopefully I wouldn’t have to rent a boat to add this bird to my county list). There was a report that the bird had been seen in the middle finger of Pinto Lake in the mid morning. At Pinto Lake, there where a hundred double-crested cormorants at any given time. This could be an exhausting search.

I arrived at the middle finger of Pinto Lake at about noon. I spotted one double-crested cormorant and not the southern visitor so I walked out to the point to scan the main body of the lake. There were a lot of gulls on the water but very few cormorants.

I headed back along the western edge of the finger. There were a few ducks, three hooded mergansers, and more coots but no cormorants. Just when I was about to end my search and head back to my car, three cormorants flew past me heading north up the finger. One of the cormorants stood out. It was much smaller and darker than the the double-crested cormorants it flew besides. The birds moved out of view but I had no doubt that they landed on the water.

I ran down the trail to an opening in the vegetation (birding is a kind of madness after all). There were the three cormorants on the water. One was much smaller and I noticed other details such as the white “V” that framed the base of the beak and the white “sideburns” of it’s breeding plumes. This was the neotropic cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus)! A very rare county bird! In fact this was the first time that a neotropic cormorant had been seen in Santa Cruz County!

The cormorants stayed in view for about five minutes before taking to the air and flying back toward the open lake. I had been lucky with my brief encounter with a Santa Cruz County rarity.

One of these cormorants is not like the others.