Stopping by Our Pond on a Pre-winter's
By Lakin Khan
Winter is close upon us, the nights and early mornings brisk, as they say in New England. To the west and east of our valley, dense fog layers over and between the hills, Chinese ink paintings for our morning and evening contemplation.
Coming in from the M lot one morning a few weeks ago, the ponds were grey with reflected sky. Six cormorants stood along the concrete rim of the island, black-clad sentinels for an invisible castle behind them. Aside from those six standing on the island's edge, I counted at least four more in the water- though it's difficult to get an accurate head count the way they lingered underneath, popping up just as others popped down.
Around noontime, I went back by the ponds for a bit more cormorant-watching and ran into Carol Hall, Administrative Coordinator in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and bird enthusiast. We swapped cormorant tales as we ate our lunch in the weak sunshine. She told me she'd counted anywhere from 8 to 15 cormorants over the previous few weeks.
Along the bank of the island in front of us, the cormorants stretched and held out their wings like damp feathered overcoats, linings loaded with tacked-on goodies for the indiscriminate bargain hunter: knock-off watches, oyster-shell rings, mackerel tails, seaweed necklaces.
These were Double Crested cormorants, dark-bodied, with a pale orange around the eyes and beak, sometimes a dull yellow sliding down the neck like a meager ascot. They hold their wings out in order to dry them, for the top layers of their feathers are not as waterproofed as those of other water birds. This might aid the cormorant's deep-dive capabilities; the Double Crested is known to dive close to 25 feet down - other species of cormorants go even further.
They are amusing birds - endearing and lithe, true swimmers. They are not buoyant birds, like the more staid and stately ducks and geese that float on the water like ships, flipping their back ends up as they scrabble under the water's surface for sustenance, rarely submerging themselves completely.
Cormorants are the submarines, their backs just under the water's surface as they cruise the pond in small flotillas, their distinctively hooked beaks pointed skyward, like periscopes-up! or as if in salute. They'll be there one moment and gone the next, gathering themselves up and shooting under water, sometimes two or three in unison, having spotted some sort of succulent pond snack.
The double crests, for which this species is named, are white feathers projecting out over the eyes and above the head, only visible during courtship and mating, which takes place in early spring, farther north and quite inland from here, often in colonies of thousands. This small batch was probably scoping out some over-wintering spots; they moved on, once the fishing got slim. Because they aren't buoyant and their top feathers are vulnerable to moisture, cormorants are quite vulnerable to oil spills, the sludgy stuff soaking them down to their skins, immobilizing their wings, the weight pulling them under to drown.
So I am glad they were here, even if only for a short spell, for this small pod escaped the contamination of the Bay and the soiling of the San Francisco and Marin beaches. It is some comfort to know that we have a respite station. While they sport about our pond, we can enjoy their presence and appreciate their grace and humor. And they in turn might remember that our ponds were a safe haven during a very bad fall for ocean life in the Bay Area.
ABOVE, Double-crested cormorants photo by Carol Hall
E-mail our amateur campus naturalist with any observations, stories or reactions you have about our shared environment with the natural world on campus. Khan is an administrative coordinator in the biology department and can be reached at email@example.com.