Foam Lake Birding No. 97

No. 97
During very wet years, like this year, many small streams that are usually dry by the middle of summer are still running and many have small fish in them. In the 1970s when we lived in Wishart the town was installing a storm sewer part of which was in front of our place. Before the sewer pipes could be laid and the ditch filled in, a stretch of very wet weather followed that delayed work for several weeks. That and the already wet spring resulted in the ditch becoming a stream. Our children and their friends would catch stickleback fish in this ditch and then try to "make" goldfish out of them. Sadly the sticklebacks died within a few days. Since the ditch was not connected to a stream of any kind the source of the fish was a mystery that was never solved. To make matters even more interesting one of my students brought a few sticklebacks to school that he had pulled out of a well in a bucket. Talk about the mysteries of nature.
Anyway, many of our streams and sloughs have sticklebacks in them and this attracts predators such as pelicans. This week I want to cover distant relatives of the pelicans, the cormorants. As a whole cormorants are black or nearly black chicken sized fish eating water birds that look a lot like crows when in flight. In some localities this characteristic has earned them the nickname of sea crows. When swimming they resemble black ducks and when perched they look a little like vultures. Unlike other members of the pelican family cormorants fly with their necks stretched out like a duck or goose. (To the very observant the neck has a slight crook in it.) Cormorants' feathers are not as waterproof as a duck's so after a period of diving after fish the cormorants have to dry their feathers out. They accomplish this by perching on a pole or snag facing the sun and spreading out their wings to let the sun and wind do their work. A very distant but similar looking relative, the Anhinga, also uses this technique. As a side note, in the past Japanese fishers used trained cormorants to catch fish for them. A ring was placed around the cormorant's neck with enough slack to allow the bird to breathe but snug enough to prevent the cormorant from swallowing the freshly caught fish. The fish was then retrieved and the cormorant would dive to catch another.
There are six species of cormorants in North America but only one, the Double Crested, occurs around here and only in the summer time. It is only one of two species that frequent fresh water; the rest are oceanic (pelagic). The double crests that give the species its name are barely evident only on the male and only during the breeding season. Otherwise the males and females are the same.
This week's photo was taken in Texas showing several cormorants sunning themselves on a snag although none have their wings spread out. This picture is actually of Neotropical Cormorants, the other species that frequents fresh water. For reasons that I cannot explain I do not have any pictures of Double Crested Cormorants so I decided to use the pictures of the Neotropical instead. In real life they look very much alike and in a black and white photo they look almost identical. In last week's issue of The Review the photo of Double Crested Cormorants by Sylvia Bolingbroke proves the point. (Compare her photo to the one included in this article). Check with a bird book for the differences between the two keeping in mind that the Neotropical does not occur here.