Every morning in Charleston, Oregon, double-crested cormorants greet the dawn. They perch singly or in pairs on small rocks protruding from the bay. They can be wraithlike in the fog with their black bodies and snakelike necks. When the sun warms the day, the birds open their wings wide as if to offer gratitude.
Biologists know better about their motivation, at least practically. These are fishing birds with “wettable” wings made to allow deep diving underwater in pursuit of fish. If well-oiled, the birds might be dry, but their dives would be foiled by the buoyancy. Wings held wide open let the wind and sun dry wet feathers.
Only the outer part of feathers retain water, while underneath the dry feathers offer an insulating layer of air that protects the bird like a comfy down jacket in the frigid Pacific.
Watching a lone cormorant with its wings held wide, I’m tempted to give it a try too. When the fog settles in as it so often does here on the coast, the cool wet air seeps into every exposed skin pore. It’s a shivering, salty cold that presses down upon you and takes some steeling of resolve to go outdoors. But then when the sun breaks through and the temperature skyrockets 30 degrees upward in minutes, the desire to throw my arms wide in praise is overwhelming. Dry! Warm! Thankfulness!
Every morning is not the same here with cormorants. Once in low tide, a dozen great white egrets lined the seaweed-slickened rocks that bear shell fossils. The egrets formed a hopeful audience of long-legged, long-necked ghost birds in the companionship of swimming cormorants of equal number. The cormorants herded a school of fish, teaming up to corral them and snap up the splashing silvery prey with those deadly spear bills with hooks. Occasionally, an egret leaned in with a swift and adept darting motion to catch a fish too.
Peering at this moment through the spotting scope mounted on a tripod in my friends’ living room, I’m observing a lone cormorant on a buoy-sized rock. The bird preens, arching a sinuous neck, so its daggerbill can gently smooth, align and oil the feather barbs and barbules on its back and under a wing. Magnified, the bright yellow color at the base of the bill, the throat, and meeting the eye gleams like showy jewelry on a symphony goer all dolled up in an elegant black frock.
All birds preen to add oil to their feathers from a gland near the base of their tails. Some birds, like dippers, dip in for copious amounts of oil to waterproof feathers for shallow dives into icy streams. Others, like the cormorants, are modest in their oiling-keeping their feathers mostly “wettable” for diving and relying on unique feather structure for drying upon emergence, in addition to the spread wing postures.
This morning, a great-blue heron is preening on a rock close by to the cormorant. I can watch them both in the circle of the scope. The two birds mirror one another in the sinuosity of snake-like necks, but the profile of a heron is hunched down, while the cormorant is not.
Take notice. Observe. See. The world outside this window rocks with the incoming and outgoing tides.
Birds come alone, in pairs, in small flocks and in large. Their lives intermingle with this ocean that can be as still as a tiny breath or as whipped as a lusty operatic aria.
This cormorant I watch lifts up its bulky webbed foot, holds it there, and now flops it down upon the rock. The bird peers left, then right, and returns to preen. The actions are a mix of clumsy clownery–those oversized webfeet–and nubile grace. But if I could track a cormorant deep underwater, I’d witness sheer power and the perfection of a long evolution for chasing fish, jet-propelled by feet set back in its body to form an aerodynamic torpedo with wings wrapped tight.
As humans, we can emulate a cormorant just enough to feel incredibly humble. Pull on a pair of flippers, drop into the water, hold your breath with your hands down at your sides and kick hard as you angle your body into the depths. I’ve tried it before when snorkeling after a school of fish and for a few seconds reveled in the transformation, even if a feeble attempt at cormorantism.
Waiting now with the cormorant for the gray sky to break open and the sun to shine and for both of us to embrace the rays, I’m drawn as always to all birds and especially another fishing bird–the kingfisher, my personal spirit guide that teaches me every day what it is to live with bravery.
On this day, I’m also grateful for being human, for feeling kinship with birds, for curiosity, passion, for love, and for the gift of immersion in this breathing, tidally rocking sea and land cradling cormorants. herons, egrets, fish, seaweed, crabs and the whole galaxy of breathtaking life.
And if the sun won’t shine? I’m bundling up and heading out anyway. Life is beckoning.