November 5, 2020 ~ My Houston Audubon e-newsletter arrived, and I learned that the elevated walkway and platforms in the Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary at High Island are now complete and ready for bird-watchers. In spite of the blazing sun, I packed up my mosquito repellent, drinking water and camera gear, and went to take a look.
Even from the parking lot, before I penetrated the thick stand of trees bordering Clay Bottom Pond, I could hear a raucous chorus of squawking, grunting and croaking. What was making all that racket?
The south end of Clay Bottom Pond in the Sanctuary is a large cormorant rookery, indicated in this Google Satellite view by the red oval. The winding red line is the approximate path of the new elevated walkway. The new walkway also provides visibility into Smith Pond, which I don’t believe we had before.
The “Kathrine G. McGovern Canopy Walkway” is much taller than the wooden viewing platform beyond, where my tripod is standing. From the wooden platforms, photographers can shoot level with the birds nesting along the edges of the islands; from the new elevated walkway, the view will be somewhat above the nesting birds (which is not quite as attractive), but will be at eye-level with birds flying to and from the nesting sites (which will be fun for bird-in-flight shots). I really appreciated the shallow stair risers, which make climbing while carrying a load much easier.
The birds are thick in the naked Bald Cypress and Chinese Tallow trees, and though it seems incongruous that they should be nesting during the first week in November, that is what my eyes and ears were telling me. Neotropic Cormorant’s calls are sometimes likened to piglike grunts. In Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, local names that allude to this call include “pig duck” (pato cerdo, pato puerco), and “oinking duck (pato gruñón)! The Animal Diversity Web observes that cormorants are “mostly silent outside the breeding season”, and says that cormorants have an unusually long, and late, breeding season in Texas – June through mid-October. Well, by the sound of it, I think these Neotropic Cormorants might be extending their season even longer.
The Cormorants are a large genus, with over 40 different species identified. The Neotropic Cormorant, Phalacrocorax brasilianus, is one of six cormorant species found in North America. (The most populous is the Double-crested Cormorant, which is less common in Texas.) I’m glad I checked multiple sources for the Neotropic Cormorant range maps; my standard go-to source, All About Birds, shows only a narrow coast-hugging strip of birds in the southern US and down into Central America. But the Wikipedia map shows their range throughout North and South America, and now we can see why “neotropical” and “Brazilian” are reflected in their scientific name.
The Neotropic (some areas of the English-speaking world refer to them as “Neotropical”) Cormorant is small, for a cormorant, nearly all black, with black webbed feet, gray hooked bill, and orange skin under the chin (the gular area) bordered in white. Their back and wing feathers have a distinctive overlapping leaf pattern of slightly iridescent bronzy-black bordered by pure black. The breeding plumage includes fine white hair-like plumes above the ear, and spreading around the head. And… they have bright emerald-green eyes.
And, here’s a photography dilemma: When taking the photo above, I was aware that the background was somewhat distracting, so I moved a few feet to the left, and captured the photo below. It is a “better” photo, with better lighting on the male’s face, and a better background. But who could resist the adoring gaze of the female in the photo above? So, I’m sharing both.
Notice all the freshly broken twigs; the birds have been breaking off branch tips for nest building. They include green foliage (Willow leaves, Water Oak leaves and Cypress fronds are visible) as well as large seed heads. The cormorants don’t eat seeds, so they must just value the tough seed casings as nesting material. They’ve also stripped the bark from some of the supporting tree branches and woven the bark into the nest.
I certainly wouldn’t classify the Neotropic Cormorant as a “pretty” bird, but they are attractive in their own way. And who wouldn’t be taken in by that fine satiny breast and those emerald eyes.
This male is bringing home a branch from a Live Oak tree. Both the bird and the twig are wet from top to bottom. Nature photographer Jon Rista observed that Double-crested Cormorants will frequently wash their twigs and nesting material by diving into the water while carrying the material, before flying the material back to the nest. I’m guessing Neotropic Cormorants do the same. Perhaps washing makes the material more pliable.
As with the herons and egrets, the males gather nesting materials, and the females accept the sticks and twigs and weave them into the nest. After flying half the length of the pond with his award-winning oak branch, the male landed in the lower, more open, branches of the cypress tree. Then he turned and hopped up towards the nest through the thick bristly twigs, taking care to turn his branch one way and then the other so it would not get tangled. The pair went through a little ritual when he finally arrived. First the male bowed deeply to his mate, lowering his chest and head, partially spreading his wings and raising his fanned tail straight up. The female pointed her head up to the sky, then bowed deeply down and away, then bowed again toward him, grunting and croaking. The male turned to one side and then the other, still holding the twig, while she bowed. Finally she accepted the twig and placed it into the nest at her feet.
Again, I avoided choosing between photos. The below photo is much better at telling the story, even though the female is badly blurred (depth of field too short)… and the photo above has better focus, but might imply that she had rejected his gift, when she hadn’t.
So, sometimes we chose a photo for its technical quality, and sometimes we select it for the story it tells. (I’m working toward the day when all my photos are technically correct, so that I can tell the story without apology!)
It will be fun to watch through the winter as the nests are completed in time for early spring. And then the Sanctuary will change as the white egrets, blue herons and pink spoonies move to their nesting sites on the island nearest the lower observation decks, and photographers gather, thick as… cormorants.