Monarch of the Swamp

For cormorants, it’s sink AND swim

Bronwen Scott

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Little Pied Cormorant spreads its wings to dry while turning its head to show its fine profile. Let’s pretend we don’t notice the awkwardness of its big webbed feet clutching the stump.
Behold! Little Pied Cormorant drying out at Hasties Swamp, Far North Queensland. © Bronwen Scott

Water levels are low at Nyleta Wetlands/Hasties Swamp.

They expose a muddy shore that encourages wading birds to stop by. Stilts and dotterels share the expanding edge with occasional Marsh and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers. Dense thickets of Slender Waterpepper (Persicaria decipiens, Polygonaceae) have died back. With the plant’s disappearance, Plumed Whistling-ducks, who liked to snooze among its grassy stems, have moved on to thicker pastures. Wandering Whistling-ducks have replaced them. Wanderers don’t much care for flooded jungles.

Muddy lake with a clear blue sky and gum-tree covered hill. There’s a tree in the foreground. The water level has dropped so there is exposed mud at the edge of the water.
Hasties Swamp with a lone Royal Spoonbill. The far shore is packed with birds. © Bronwen Scott

Although the water has receded, it is still deep enough in spots to attract Little Pied and Little Black Cormorants. They chase Northern Purple-spotted Gudgeon (Mogurnda mogurnda, Eleotridae) through the weed. It’s hit and miss. Sometimes they surface with a flapping fish; sometimes with a bill full of stiff, muddy twigs.

While ducks bob around on the surface, cormorants lie low in the water. (Although not as low as darters, who swim with a fully submerged body and head and neck sticking up like a periscope.)

I thought it would be interesting to get some photos of Little Pied Cormorants diving to chase fish but the behaviour is less exciting when it’s taken apart frame by frame. Head down. Back arched. One lacklustre kick. Nothing but ripples.

Cormorants are much easier to photograph with their wings spread out to dry like washing on the line. Their feathers are not water-repellent like those of ducks, but only water-resistant. (If you’ve been caught in a storm while wearing a water-resistant jacket, you’ll know the difference.) After repeated dives, the water works its way through the overlapping feathers and saturates them. The birds must spend time drying out before resuming their hunt for fish (or muddy sticks).

L to R: Little Pied Cormorant; Little Black Cormorant (and Royal Spoonbill); male Australasian Darter. Hasties Swamp, FNQ. © Bronwen Scott

But their laid-back, loafing charm disappears when they encounter rivals. Two Little Pied Cormorants…

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Bronwen Scott

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland. She/her. Website: bronwenscott.com