Go fish

Let me apologize in advance to nathalie with an h for not posting these photos until now.  I’ve been on call since Wednesday and have only last night enjoyed my first bit of sleep since Friday morning.  It’s been that kind of week and weekend.  But I digress…

Over a cup of coffee at Starbucks recently, we discussed the first All in a day’s walk in terms of photography, equipment, approach and so on—not to mention the plethora of wildlife presented.

You see, she’s a professional photographer with far more experience and much better equipment than I have, so I readily engage in “shop talk” with her as frequently as she’ll allow.  I listen intently, I ask questions, and I learn.

In terms of dealing with rough waters and strong winds and the other elemental considerations from January 18, we got around to discussing the image of a double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) carrying a fish.  That’s when I explained to her that that cormorant was in fact the second such bird to fight off a pelican while protecting its meal, and more importantly, the first cormorant had played with its much larger catch while swimming further away from me.

Those photos didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped due to distance and position: The birds were quite far from shore and I was facing south into the sun.  Therefore, I scrapped them.

Well, let’s be honest: Few of the pictures of things on the water’s surface turned out as well as I had hoped.  The water was simply too rough to provide a stable background.  I came home with a smorgasbord of photos showing empty water or bits of waterfowl hidden behind tall waves or subjects out of focus, all of which can be blamed on the fact that strong surface movement kept the whole of the lake in a perpetual state of turmoil.

This was the one case where, on the south side of Winfrey Point, the winds coming from the north ran aground and offered a tiny reprieve from the tumultuous waves inundating the rest of the lake.

As she and I talked a bit about what was in that post and I shared the story about the first cormorant, she adamantly said she wanted to see photo of the bird playing with its catch.  I agreed with one caveat: That she understand the photos weren’t as good as I would have liked.

So on with the tale…

I’ve explained before that many species join in when the pelicans hunt.  Unlike brown pelicans, white pelicans are surface feeders instead of divers.  They are also cooperative hunters: Groups of them form a floating line and push closer and closer together.  This herds fish into tighter and tighter circles until a feeding frenzy erupts as the pelicans finally meet in the middle.

Gulls, cormorants and ducks often join in this activity.  It’s actually quite interesting to watch since the pelicans will head out first and start congregating near the spillway.  As more and more of these avian giants leave, the cormorants begin flocking their way in the same direction.  Then go the gulls.  And any ducks already in the area or who see the activity likewise join the club.

When finally the pelicans begin to move, hundreds of waterfowl can be gathered together.  It looks like a naval fleet consisting of aircraft (gulls) and boats of varying sizes (pelicans, cormorants and ducks).  The cacophony will get your attention if the sight of so many creatures on the move doesn’t.

I saw the feeding flotilla out toward the center of the lake with spurious individuals sneaking away with whatever they caught.  Ducks and cormorants know that a pelican can and will kill them if it tries to go after a fish the lesser birds have in their possession.  It’s not that pelicans are violent or even trying to kill; it’s that they’re much larger than the other birds and can impale and/or drown them simply by trying to steal the fish.  (I’ve seen a cormorant grabbed in a pelicans beak and pushed underwater as the larger bird tried to “catch” the already caught fish.)

So the smart ones get out of the way fast when they have something to eat.

That’s when I first saw this cormorant.  The fish it carried was a large catfish that looked as big as the bird’s throat.  But I wasn’t the only one who noticed.  No sooner had I set my sights on the cormorant when a pelican flying back to Sunset Bay made a quick turn to intercept a free meal.  It landed pretty much on top of the cormorant, after which much splashing and wing flapping ensued.  Rough surface conditions made it impossible for me to see clearly what was happening so far out in the lake, yet I watched nonetheless in appreciation of the show.

After no more than 10 or 15 seconds, the pelican calmed down and floated quietly on the surface.  I didn’t see it eat anything, nor did I see the cormorant.  Then just as quickly as it had arrived, the pelican turned away and skipped across the surface of the lake as it took flight, then it arced silently and swept through the clear sky on its way back to the bay.

That’s when I noticed the cormorant had escaped with its meal!

A double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) swimming with a fish in its beak (2009_01_18_004692)

It broke the surface heading away from me.  I zoomed in as much as I could and snapped a photo.

Given the average size of cormorants, I estimated the catfish at about 1 foot/30 centimeters long.  Humans would consider it small by our fishing standards, but for a cormorant it certainly had to be viewed as a gluttonous feast.

I kept pressing the shutter button with the same belief I always have when taking photos: It’s digital, so it’s better to try and delete them later than not to try and miss something cool.

That’s when the cormorant turned and threw the fish into the air.

A double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) tossing a fish into the air (2009_01_18_004693)

I’d like to believe, like cats, the cormorant was enjoying a bit of predator-prey play (although prey hardly find it fun), but in truth I suspect the bird needed to change the fish’s position after nearly losing it to the pelican.

A double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) swimming with a fish in its beak (2009_01_18_004694)

It then turned away again and moved further toward the center of the lake, further from shore and into a more questionable photographic arena.  I was shooting at 400mm and still the bird was nothing but a black spot in the center of an ocean of blue.  (Yes, all of these photos are crops from much larger, much emptier images.  Eventually I will invest in a larger zoom telephoto lens, but not now and not soon.)

A double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) swimming with a fish in its beak (2009_01_18_004695)

Another westward turn and the bird-fish combo became increasingly difficult to focus on.  As it moved away from the cover of Winfrey Point, the wind-driven waves began creating an environment where mostly I saw water with a bit of cormorant hiding behind the blue.

A double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) swimming with a fish in its beak (2009_01_18_004696)

When it dashed through a large wave on its way to the dinner table, I pressed the button one more time before turning my attention toward the rest of my walk.

[note: these photos are in sequence and span a time frame of five seconds]

3 thoughts on “Go fish”

  1. Well this is the icing on the cake (your previous post). You did a fine job, Jason. A scene like that tests my self control and believe me, I’m still working on it.

    You’re fortunate to have Nathalie with an H. I’d be so happy to have a real photographer friend to have lunch with.

  2. Great photos! Just awesome.
    I never realizied cormorants kept just enough of themselves out of the water to keep from drowning.

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