By Mia Davidson and Jan Sattler
Laguna Beach supports a large number of resident bird species and one of the more distinctive species sighted is the Brandt’s cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus). Found only in North America, Brandt’s cormorants are marine birds that are mostly permanent residents of the Pacific coast and congregate in colonies on rocky outcroppings with other species of birds. Almost solid black and slender with a distinctive prehistoric look, the Brandt’s cormorant is a fairly large bird reaching almost 36 inches in length. Although certain individual birds have been known to live 18 years, the average lifespan is six years. Nesting in colonies on cliffs and offshore rocks, both sexes incubate the eggs and care for the young.
In Laguna, Brandt’s cormorants can often be seen flying low over the water, singly or in groups, with their distinctive lengthy neck, head and slender hooked bill fully extended in a straight line out from the body. Their carnivorous diet consists of a variety of fish but also includes some shrimp, crab and squid. When feeding, they can dive from up to 150 feet high to catch small fish near the surface, or swim to the sea floor at a depth up to 40 feet using their webbed feet for propulsion. Having little water-proofing oil on their feathers, Brandt’s cormorants float characteristically low in the water with only their head and neck showing. After feeding, they tend to seek high perches and spread their wings, which are thought to aid digestion and dry their feathers.
Climatic events like El Niño and La Niña, pollution, commercial fishing and human disturbance at its breeding grounds are the biggest threat to the species. Brandt’s cormorants can often be viewed on Seal Rock at Crescent Bay and at Bird Rock below Heisler Park or flying near the ocean surface in their distinctive low-slung style. But view them from a distance; climbing on Seal Rock is prohibited and the Marine Safety Department often keep people off all the rocks for safety reasons. In addition, Laguna was designated a bird sanctuary in 1978 and harassing birds is prohibited by law.
Residents Mia Davidson and Jan Sattler are year-round ocean swimmers and board members of Laguna Ocean Foundation, advocates for preserving the marine environment. For more info: go to www.lagunaoceanfoundation.org