Saturday, October 25, 2014

Shag in a tree

(This article contains multiple errors. This one contradicts them.)

Our seas are overfished. There was a time when the trawlers threw something back if it was not the main quarry. With modern fishing, which is much more scientific, they take the lot, and everything is separated on factory ships. Nothing goes to waste. It may not be the only reason but sea-birds like herring-gulls, black-backed gulls, black-headed gulls and even common terns have become residents of, or frequent visitors to, Birmingham lakes. Occasionally, when it is rough at sea, cormorants come too.

Cormorant on lake (Birmingham, John Goss 24/10/2014)

It is doubtful many people can tell the diference between a cormorant and a shag. These seabirds and able fishermen are almost look-alike members of the pelican family. In the bird kingdom both are monarchs with their regal dark-coloured cloaks. They are fliers and swimmers of similar shape and size. What is unusual about the next photograph is that it shows both a cormorant (on top) and a shag (underneath) in the same tree in Birmingham. Cormorants and shags are most usually found on craggy coastal rocks and normally do their fishing in the sea.

Cormorant (top) and shag (below) in same tree (Birmingham, John Goss 22/10/2014)

In spring it is much easier to tell the difference. The shag sports a crest and the cormorant has a patch of white on its thigh, which is lost following the mating season. After that the most evident distinguishing feature is a white area on the cormorant's face below the beak as can be seen in the first photograph. A shag does not have that patch of white. Here is a photograph of the Birmingham shag on the wing.

Shag in flight (Birmingham, John Goss 22/10/2014)

Another distinguishing feature can be found with the shag only having twelve tail feathers whereas the cormorant has fourteen. After fishing both birds dry their wings in the wind in a display which is eye-catching and heraldic, as one bird-book describes it. Here is the cormorant doing just that. You can clearly count the fourteen tail feathers.

Cormorant drying itself in the breeze (Birmingham, John Goss 23/10/2014)

In observing the cormorant it was noticeable that it sat low in the water and dived from that position with an arch of the back. It stayed under for about half a minute and made some fifteen dives (if I saw them all) before catching anything and flying back to its perch. The shag on the other hand was not as long away from its perch and flew beyond the range of my camera. It may be that the shag is a better fisherman. Here it is in the drying off display.

Shag drying itself in the breeze (Birmingham, John Goss 22/10/2014)

Cormorants are heavy birds which, as mentioned, sit low in the water. Getting airborne is quite an effort. For this cormorant it took three bounces on the water before lift-off and it looked like the bomb designed by Barnes Wallis in the Dambusters film.

 Cormorant 'bouncing back to happiness' (Birmingham, John Goss 23/10/2014) 

Learning about these two incredible and impressive dark angels of the sea has been an experience for this ancient mariner. The luck of having both birds to hand at the same time on a lake rather than the crags by a choppy sea has been a pleasure and I hope this short blog-piece has added something, however small, to the canon of knowledge. A bird in the hand is worth two in the tree, or something.

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