Today we are in our third week of our time here at Sea Ranch, and I am amazed at how quickly the days fly by. It seems really like only a few days since we got here. From having dinner at Diane’s to walking along the top of the bluff, to watching the first western gull chicks stumble out from the safety of their nests, all these things you could tell me had happened yesterday and, though they happened even a week or two ago, I might be convinced that I had simply imagined that intervening time. Perhaps part of the cause of this is our return nearly daily to the same points of observation, whether it be between the two vantages of Gualala Point Island or the two coves of Breakers Reach, so that each day flows into the next with a mixing of the time between.
I quite enjoy the feeling actually, and especially enjoy the observation of the pelagic cormorants, as it allows me to return almost daily to the same location and consistently observe the same group of birds. While I appreciate seeing and learning of many places, I often wish I could go beyond the surface of what I am observing. A study like ours allows that opportunity.
Four days a week we venture onto the bluff finding, at least for my site, a comfortable place to sit on the exposed shale of the rocky point. From there we observe nests of a six pairs of pelagic cormorants (or PECOs), with the areas in between visited intermittently by various other PECOs which having no nest site themselves simply find a place to rest upon the rock face. For three hours at a time we sit and watch these birds as intently as we can, recording their comings and goings so that later perhaps we can analyze their feeding habits and tracking the state of their nest success over time. In the meantime I’ll enjoy watching their progress and learning more of their character and even perhaps personalities.
Three of the nests are well built stacks of grass and twigs formed into comfortable bowls in which to sit, their bottom edges colored white by the feces which lightly coat the rocks beneath each nest. Each has a clutch of three to four eggs, which are often in need of re-positioning by the waiting parent. One of the other nests has almost matched these original three in its construction, yet there is more work to do before it can be considered fully developed. Another follows closely behind, and just today we found that two new pairs had started form nests among our original six.
It has been awesome to see a nest built from nothing over a matter of days, and to know for certain that the eggs I see today had not been there the day before. And I have to admire the parents, who sometimes will sit still for the entire three hours of an observation while their mate is away foraging or otherwise occupied. They do get uncomfortable from time to time, and adjust the same as we do when sitting on an awkward seat. But always they are thinking of the eggs, adjusting them for best positioning beneath them, rearranging and reinforcing the nest structure, or even trying discourage the landing of wandering PECOs on any nearby rock.
They makes calls at the intruder’s presence, their cries ringing with a sense of time gone by, bringing to mind what one might imagine the dinosaurs to have sounded. The harsh line of their beak, combined with the raw gaze of a blue-green eye in a sea of red give it the look of something ancient. If I were to only look upon them, I might think them fierce creatures, cold in the ways of emotion. Their actions however speak differently, for when the mates of some return from a time away, the cormorants reveal another side of themselves. They call softly, craning their necks forward and backwards toward their partner. A few nests in particular are especially affectionate, cooing and rubbing against each other for minutes at a time. Perhaps I read too much into things, but I can’t think of a better explanation than that they wish to greet their partner after a time away, though perhaps they ask as we might what took them so long in coming back.
I hope that during my stay here I may be able to unlock such secrets, or at least glean some little information from the light filtering through the keyhole. At the very least I can follow the fate of these wonderful birds, and learn all I can as they reveal the measure and pace of their lives to us day after foggy day.