On our last outing in the tinny we spotted a small flock of cormorants hanging out on the ruins of an old sandstone wharf that would have once belonged to a house at the water’s edge, now long gone. I zoomed in and snapped away with the camera before they decided they’d had enough of the intrusion and took flight. Cormorants are a true amphibious bird, often popping their heads up next to your boat when you least expect, having surfaced from their latest foraging mission, only to spy you and just as quickly disappear again.
People are often unsure of the difference between a cormorant and a shag (the kind of shag that sits on a rock) but in actual fact they belong to the same family (Phalacrocoracidae) of which there are some forty species. Shag was a name sometimes used by sailors and explorers for those species which had a crest on top of their head. Cormorants can often be seen with their wings outstretched, drying out their feathers which in some species are less oiled than in other coastal birds.
Anyway, when I got home and started web based research on exactly what species of cormorant we’d seen, I realised I’d be there a long time sifting through pages and pages of amateur commentary on cormorants (perhaps a bit like this blog!). There must be something about the way we work these days, glued to the computer, that instinctively makes us turn to “Dr Google” as our primary source of information, when its not always the most reliable or fastest source of truth. Often it’s a case of information overload which results in our questions going unanswered, as is still the case with my Hawkesbury jellyfish.
A couple of days after returning from our trip, I borrowed a copy of Simpson and Day’s Field Guide to the Birds of Australia and I had within minutes, confidently identified the photographed birds as the Little Pied Cormorant Phalacrocorax melanoleucos,(let me know if you take a look at my photos and think otherwise).
The field guide helped me identify the bird by being able to compare its bill size, colour, plumage, flocking and flying habits and geographic location with that of similar looking cormorant species. It also helped me to eliminate the others by highlighting features it did not have. Although I would have had to observed them for longer to see this for myself, I also learned that the Little Pied Cormorant “appears to be the only Australian cormorant which soars in thermals.” You may also be interested to know that its cousin the Little Black Cormorant fishes cooperatively with Australian Pelicans; now that I’d love to see in action!
When I was a child I collected the Collins pocket guides to all sorts of things including birds of Britain, farm animals, pond life etc. so in Simpson and Day I have rediscovered an old friend in the field guide, something that does exactly as its name suggests. Field guides provide you with information in the field when you really need it. So Simpson and Day will be accompanying me on my next tinny trip, and hopefully teaching Tess that Google is not the only source of truth! To all those twitchers and wildlife watchers out there, what are your Australian field guide recommendations?