Bird Lore: Brandt’s Cormorant

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Of the three cormorant species that populate the Edmonds waterfront, the Brandt’s Cormorant is the least common, although it is a year-round resident and breeding bird of Washington. When seen on the Inland Marine Waters in winter, it is noted for its drab brown plumage, dark eye, and the distinctive buffy patch at the base of its bill. It is about the same size as the large Double-crested Cormorant that is distinctive for its yellow bill.

For the three months that it is in breeding plumage (April – June) it is on offshore islands off the outer coast, where we do not see it. If we could transport ourselves to a breeding colony, we would admire this cormorant’s glossy, iridescent plumage with long, wispy white feathers on its face and wings, its bright blue eyes, and its brilliant turquoise throat patch.

The Brandt’s Cormorant ranges from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, up the West Coast through Southeast Alaska, and as far northwest as Prince William Sound. Banding studies have shown that California was the origin of birds that winter in British Columbia waters. We know that the numbers of this cormorant wintering in Washington, B.C., and Alaska are greater than the numbers that breed in those same locales. So there appears to be smaller resident populations in the north and greater winter movement of California birds.

Diet is mostly fish and squid. Peak numbers of Brandt’s Cormorant correspond with herring spawning in February and March. This cormorant dives from the surface and chases prey under water. It grabs fish with its bill, but does not spear its prey.

Washington breeding sites for the Brandt’s Cormorant include several islands off the north coast and the cliffs at Cape Disappointment near the Columbia River. Summering non-breeders rarely are found south of Admiralty Inlet. Because Edmonds is positioned at the southeast end of Admiralty Inlet, it is possible to see an occasional Brandt’s Cormorant in summer.

The Brandt’s Cormorant breeds in colonies. The male selects a nest site and then engages in display behavior to ward off rivals and to attract a mate. He draws his head back, extending the blue throat pouch and pointing his bill upward, spreads his tail and flutters his wings. He will also thrust his head up and down quickly and repeatedly. The male gathers the nest material and the female builds the nest. Most of the material comes from under water and includes seaweed, eel grass and algae. It is mounded and then cemented together with droppings. It may be used for multiple years.

There are usually four eggs, incubated by both sexes for an unknown period of time. Both parents feed the young by regurgitation. Age at first flight is not known.

This cormorant is named for a Russian naturalist, J. F. Brandt, of the Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg. He first described this cormorant species in 1838, based on a skin in the collection of the Zoological Museum at St. Petersburg. When in groups, the Brandt’s Cormorant flies in single file. Collective nouns for all cormorant species include flight, gulp, sunning, and swim.

Conservation status of the Brandt’s Cormorant has mixed assessments. There are an estimated 151,200 breeding birds. The Waterbird Conservation for the Americas rates this cormorant as a species of high concern. Yet it is not on the State of the Birds Watch List. There were increases in the population from 1900 to 1970 because of legal protections against hunting and against collecting the eggs of Common Murres. Egg collecting was an associated disturbance. Now the population may be stable to declining. Because it is sensitive to human disturbance, it remains at risk from commercial fishing, pollutants, and recreational use of the West Coast marine environment.

You can listen to calls of a Brandt’s Cormorant here: https://www.xeno-canto.org/354689. You can watch a 3.5 minute video of a Brandt’s Cormorant in breeding plumage here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Brandts_Cormorant/media-browser-overview/473594.

By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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