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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #7: Great Cormorant

By James

While I was writing this blog post, I realized that the Great Cormorant has been, for me, the Giving Bird. Though it’s cool enough by itself, I’ve always associated the Great Cormorant with awesome birding experiences, whether in Spain, Italy or at that old Coast Guard station on Pea Island.

I first saw this impressive bird along the Guadalquivir River that runs through Seville. After two weeks in Spain, I grew tired of birding the small municipal parks and after glancing at a map (apparently they still make those, weird!), I noticed a rather large park in the northwest corner of the city: Parque Alamillo quickly became my go-to birding spot. When I first decided to head down, I was not pleased about the 45-minute walk it took to get there. However, it turned out the walk along the Guadalquivir was fantastic for birding. While heading back from the park (more on that later), I saw a cormorant actually swimming on the water, instead of flying overhead as per usual. Much to my chagrin, the bird dove down before I was able to get a good picture. Then, an agonizing thirty seconds later, it surfaced close-by and give me a fantastic look at the brilliant blue eyes of the Great Cormorant.

I’ll always remember seeing these birds along the canals of Venice. It’s a city I’d always wanted to visit, though not for the birding (although I did get three lifers during my trip there). However, while I looked out across the Venetian Lagoon, I saw these large black birds preening on the pillars. I was shocked to see them in breeding plumage – I’ve been seeing Double-crested Cormorants for years, but never have I seen them with ridiculous-looking white necks like these Greats. It was almost like getting another lifer! I kept seeing these birds throughout my stay in Europe, and ran into them again back in the States.

Great Cormorants are pretty uncommon in North Carolina, but not hard to find given the right time and place. Apparently that time and place is Oregon Inlet in the dead of winter. We talked earlier about how we had found these birds on the Pea Island Christmas Bird Count, but it was a very unique experience for me. Robert and I have birded together for a while. We’ve shared a lot of life birds, and he’s seen me get a lot of life birds that he’d seen several times before. But this trip to the old Coast Guard station gave me the opportunity to get Robert a life bird that I’d already seen, and I took full advantage. I made sure that he knew all the times I saw them in Europe, and how much better the views were.

The last experience I’ll never forget once again found us at the old Coast Guard station, but I never actually saw the bird. The light was pretty good on the pillar where the Great Cormorant had been staying, and Robert wanted to check out his previous life bird once again. But thanks to the huge number of times I’ve seen them, and the sweet looks I got, I had no interest in walking across the highway to see a particularly dingy-looking individual. I argued that there were better birds to be seen if we walked out to the jetty. Robert conceded, and as fate would have it, that decision meant we walked past some reeds at the exact time that a small Dovekie floundered about, leading to one of our best birding experiences ever: saving an awesome and unusual bird from an uncertain fate.

I have had some incredible experiences with Great Cormorants, whether my breathtaking life looks, seeing them in full breeding plumage in what is quite possibly the most beautiful city in the world, or gloating as Robert enjoyed a bird I had enjoyed plenty of times before. But nothing quite beats totally ignoring them and instead pulling a stranded Dovekie out of a bush. The Great Cormorant is beautiful bird, and one of my favorites: the Giving Bird.    

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