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Cormorant battles giant fish!

The ominous - to a fish, anyway - black silhouettes of Great Cormorants, Phalacrocorax carbo, adorn a marker at the entrance to Barnegat Bay in New Jersey. This large species of cormorant has the widest distribution of any cormorant species, occurring in Australia, Africa, Asia, and Europe. In North America, Great Cormorants breed only in maritime zones of the North Atlantic, from Greenland south to Maine. Wintering birds move south into the mid-Atlantic region.

For interior-dwelling landlubbers used to seeing Double-crested Cormorants, P. auritus, the comparatively massive Great Cormorants are a shock. The wingspan is nearly a foot longer, and a Great Cormorant is almost twice the weight of a Double-crested, making for a much bulkier looking bird. The bird in this photo is an adult coming into breeding plumage, and it sports a distinctive white flank patch, a white throat, and whitish feathering is developing on the neck.

Great Cormorants feed almost entirely on fish, and as we shall see, you would not want to be one of those anywhere near this cormorant that has splashed in for a bout of fishing.

Cormorants are great divers, and once under the water visually locate and pursue their scaly prey. Some of their victims can be massive as we shall see.

At one point, I was standing far out on the Barnegat breakwall, keeping a loose eye on a cormorant that was feeding nearby. When I saw it bob to the surface in an apparent struggle with something, I pivoted the camera rig to our protagonist and watched to see what would play out.
Ah! This should be good! The hard-working bird finally muscled up what appeared to be a small log - a big fish of some sort.

The cormorant finally managed to wrestle the fish well out of the water, enabling this documentary photo. The fish appears to be a cunner, Tautoglabrus adpressus, which is a bottom-dwelling species. Thanks to Mark Dilley for pointing me in the right direction regarding the victim's identification. Cunners apparently enter a torpor-like state in winter, so once the cormorant located it, the fish was probably easy pickings. Obviously, though, the real challenge now comes in actually swallowing this thing. Looking at the fish to bird ratio, I would scarcely believe it possible that the cormorant could choke that thing down.

But the cormorant did indeed choke it down - in fact, it nearly inhaled the fish. I only got this one shot off before the fish was gone, sucked right down the bird's throat.

Resting fat and happy, stubby little crest erect and throat engorged. I would think a meal like that would last the bird for some time.

This experience calls to mind that stupidly inaccurate expression "eats like a bird", which is used to refer to a person that eats very little food. Believe me, you don't want to truly "eat like a bird" or you'll be paying Weight Watchers overtime. The maximum weight of a cunner is 2.2 lbs., and I'd say that the one eaten by our cormorant weighed a pound, probably - maybe more, possibly a bit less. As a Great Cormorant weighs about seven pounds, this bird just ingested one-seventh of its bodyweight in a few seconds. For a 200 lb. man to match this feat, he would have to consume about 29 lbs. of food at once. Even Joey Chestnut could not come close to that.

My advice? Don't eat like a bird.


Sue said…
Good grief!
I couldn't believe it could do that.
You sure had a lucky day seeing that.

BTW---I just got back from Nebraska---and was TOO early for the cranes, and too late for the snow geese. What a strange year it's been. I had heard that the snow geese had holed up down in Kansas, so I was confident I would be seeing the usual HUGE numbers, but it was not to be. Nature plays some dirty tricks sometimes-LOL!
Nichole said…
Hi Jim,

I am looking for more information on the April 18, 2015 - Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Wildflower/Nature Hike at Agnes Andreae Preserve on Little Darby Creek. Madison County, Ohio.

Google hasn't been helpful on providing details on where and when to meet and if registration is needed.

ChrisM said…
Love the cormorant tale. A couple of summers ago I watched a cormorant wrestling with a large eel, which took it quite a while to subdue and eat. This was in the harbor of a fishing village in Fife, Scotland.
Jim McCormac said…
Thanks for your comments, everyone! Nichole, I don't have any more details on that hike yet, other than it'll be that morning. Best bet would be to contact the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy office, which can easily be found via The Google.
Lukasz W said…
Great pictures!
Anonymous said…
Great set of photos! But I think the fish in the cormorant's grasp is actually a Tautog, a close relative of the Cunner. I've lived on the east coast and fished in saltwater there since I was a kid. I've caught both species and base my ID on the fish's steep forehead, mouth size, and lip thickness. Cunners may reach a maximum size of 2.2. lbs, but that's only in deep water well offshore. Most near-shore cunners are a 1/2 lb. or less. Tautog in the 1-2 lb. range are much more likely to be found close to shore such as near a breakwater. Tautog can grow to be 20+ lbs in offshore waters. Images of them here:

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