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Sixty-Something: About Those Cormorants In The Hamptons

T.J. Clemente

With its long flexible neck, its long Donald Duck like beak, and its dark, oil like coloring, it is an odd bird that one see's in all the bays of the Hamptons, but never actually in the ocean. (Photo: TJ Clemente)

When I first came out to the Hamptons, I was overwhelmed by the enormous variety of wildlife. The year I lived in East Hampton Village, on Barns Lane in a home somewhat behind the Golden Pear, I saw hummingbirds on a regular basis. Amazingly, since I moved from that location, I haven't seen one at all again. A bird I do see daily is the cormorant. With its long flexible neck, its long Donald Duck like beak, and its dark, oil like coloring, it is an odd bird that one see's in all the bays of the Hamptons, but never actually in the ocean.

At first I had no idea what the bird was called, but learned to pronounce cormorant quickly! Over the years I have enjoyed watching them take off from the water like a heavy, underpowered sea plane, or dive into the water for fish like an Olympic Diver entering the water without any trace of a splash. I have come to admire these creatures that seem to thrive out in the Hamptons. Some cormorants have been known to dive as deep as 150 feet to snatch a fish to eat. That's not the situation in Three Mile Harbor where most of the time it's between 18 feet and 4 feet deep.

Around Three Mile Harbor, cormorants are everywhere. They perch on top off dock pilings. They love to hang on the lights at the town docks. They love to hang out together. In fact, they nest in colonies along the water. In England, they call cormorants "shags." Looking up the origins of the word via Google I found: "cormorant" is a contraction derived either directly from Latin corvus marinus, "sea raven," or through Brythonic Celtic. Cormoran is the Cornish name of the sea giant in the tale of Jack the Giant Killer. Indeed, "sea raven" or analogous terms were the usual terms for cormorants in Germanic languages until after the Middle Ages. The French explorer André Thévet commented in 1558, "... the beak [is] similar to that of a cormorant or other corvid," which demonstrates that the erroneous belief that the birds were related to ravens lasted at least to the 16th century."

Another unique characteristic of cormorants is they are often seen opening up their winds seemingly to dry them out. Again, a little Google research about the opening the wings to dry stated: "All cormorants have preen gland secretions that are used ostensibly to keep the feathers waterproof. Some sources state that cormorants have waterproof feathers while others say that they have water-permeable feathers. Still others suggest that the outer plumage absorbs water but does not permit it to penetrate the layer of air next to the skin. The wing drying action is seen even in the flightless cormorant but commonly in the Antarctic shags and red-legged cormorants. Alternate functions suggested for the spread-wing posture include that it aids thermoregulation] or digestion, balances the bird, or indicates presence of fish. A detailed study of the great cormorant concludes that it is without doubt to dry the plumage."

Lastly, I must tell my favorite cormorant story. One evening, in the dark while going through the Three Mile Harbor Jetty, my sailboat motor snagged what seemed like a mile of fishing line and stalled. The fishing line had to be cut out. A chore I chose to do in sunlight since it involved using a very sharp knife. So I tied my boat up at the only available spot on the Town Dock very near the jetty and went home. Early the next morning, perhaps ten hours later, I arrived to find my boat covered as if it went through a car wash with Cormorant poop. You couldn't even get on board. A nearby fisherman loading his boat with those lobster traps looked down at me and my boat and playfully stated, "Nobody ever ties up there because that's under the night light pole where the cormorants like to sit and poop all night long." It took me a few hours of water, boat soap and mopping to get it off!

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