Sunday, June 24, 2012

Coastal Romance on the Rocks

Male Brandt's cormorant in breeding display - head tipped back over back, distinct bright blue gular pouch inflated, wings fluttering, tail cocked.
I took a photography workshop with Nate Donovan at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in mid-March. I thought that I had been to Point Lobos in Monterey County before, after all, I moved to the central coast of California from Florida over 25 years ago. We got to the park early and I zoomed down the closest trail for a preview before the rest of the students arrived. Colorful rocky cliffs, foamy waves, wind-sculpted cypress trees and the dense bushy habitat of coastal scrub promising birds, lizards and small mammals with the sun's encouragement.  No, I'd never been here before. Not sure how I missed it.

I've toured the grassy hills of Palo Corona Regional Park above this section of the coast with fellow ecologists, and pulled ice plant at Garrapata State Park to the south, but never had I witnessed this rough and jagged shore with numerous small coves and changing vistas. Coastal California has so many beautiful places, it's hard to keep them all straight. The big clouds of a storm front were blowing in over the ocean and making large waves, so it looked like it was going to be a day of photographing white spray and aquamarine droplets flung at the rugged rocks. Except I got distracted by nature which tends to happen to me at nature photography workshops.

Guillemot Island as seen from observation deck off North Shore Trail at Point Lobos State Reserve 
My fellow students were pointing their cameras at towering waves or fawns nibbling on ferns, but I was trying to remember the name of grass plants draped over the trail in the morning mist. Coming to my collegial senses, I followed the clicking and gentle f-stop conversations on the North Shore Trail to catch up with the rest of the class. But wait, there was a side trail I couldn't resist and with a few steps up and down, I ended up alone on a small platform overlooking the backside of a rocky island.

In breeding plumage, both male and female adult Brandt's cormorants get long, white, wispy plumes on the back of their neck and scapulars (feathers on shoulder). They gather into colonies on coastal islands and cliffs to nest.
Every few minutes, a big wave would come rushing up the narrow passage between the island and headland and shake the observation deck, so I was trying to anchor down my tripod with my camera pack and find a way to aim my heavy lens at the waves without getting covered by salt spray.

Male Brandt's cormorants collect nesting material.
Nesting material can either be bits of vegetation collected on land or seaweed collected during ocean forays. 
After collecting dried vegetation on the Guillemot Island, this male Brandt's cormorant walks it to a nest site and prominently displays it in many directions as an advertisement to female cormorants flying by.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed some black birds on the island. I knew Nate would eventually find me and coach me once again on how to photograph moving water, so I pulled my binoculars out to check the birds first. They looked like stocky versions of the double-crested cormorants I usually see in San Francisco Bay. They were black with long narrow bills and sitting at evenly spaced locations on the steep rock. In the binoculars, I noticed they had wisps of long, white feathers trailing back from their cheeks.

On the sheltered side of the island, easily visible from North Shore Trail, two Brandt's cormorants begin a dance-like courtship. Keep an eye on the triangular-shaped rock that these two are standing on as a reference point in photos below.  Click any photo to see a larger view.
They twine necks and cross bills while the neighboring cormorants look on.  
A comrade flew in over the waves like a dark loaded arrow and landed on the rock. As it waddled down a narrow path, each sitting cormorant would throw its head and long neck over its back and puff out a bright blue throat patch - an exotic display for these otherwise mostly plain black birds. Later I would learn these are Brandt's cormorants (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) which during the breeding season get bright blue skin on the expandable throat pouch below their bill called gular patches.

The male interrupts the dance for a short walk.
And carefully makes his way across the uneven ground in webbed feet.
He disappears behind a large rock.
 I turned my camera towards the island, and with a remote switch, took photos while watching the birds through my binoculars. I settled in for a show having no idea what intimate behavior I was about to witness. One cormorant presented a leafy stem to another cormorant and they started a dance of passing the plant fragment, crossing bills and twining their glossy necks. The nearby cormorants watched, and at intervals would display their gular patches.

Meanwhile, the other nearby males try displaying again to the unattended female waiting at the triangular rock.
The original male returns with nesting material he foraged from behind the large rock and passes it to the female.  Upon the return of the original male cormorant, the competing male at the closest nest site stops displaying his gular patch.
The courting Brandt's cormorants pass the nesting material back and forth and twine necks.
Twenty minutes later, the romantic pair flew off together, and the closest neighbor hopped down the rocks to the dance floor, stole a stem and went back up to his nest spot where he tucked it into a pile of vegetation. The next neighbor up then hopped down on his clumsy webbed feet, stole another stem, and returned uphill with the stolen booty. I was amazed to witness the terrestrial breeding behavior of these ocean birds.

The male repeats the cycle of foraging nesting material and presenting it to the female.
The male and female Brandt's cormorants pause during their intricate courtship dance.
Eventually, Nate found me on my headland perch and after listening to my excited bird chatter, he suggested I try shooting a few other settings. We spent the rest of the day exploring the many different vistas at Point Lobos, but I still couldn't get over my accidental viewing of the Brandt's cormorant dance.

When the courting couple both leave, the neighbor male goes down to the triangular rock to acquire nesting material.
And he walks it up to his own nest site.
Coming up soon: a second visit to Guillemot Island at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. The Brandt's cormorants are now (mid-June) hatching at this location, providing another interesting look into the brief land stay of these oceanic birds. Look for the spur trail at about the midway point on North Shore Trail and follow it a short distance to a wooden observation deck. The trails and Guillemot Island are clearly shown on the park brochure, and maps and other information are available at the Point Lobos Foundation website. Bring good binoculars or a spotting scope. There are other species of cormorants nesting on rocky cliffs at Point Lobos, so bring a bird book, or challenge yourself to notice the differences and look them up later. The entrance fee is $10 which is a bargain for the beautiful scenery and adventures you will experience.

A report on the June antics of the cormorants on Guillemot Island is now posted here.

Another view of cormorants breeding on a coastal island at Point Lobos Natural Reserve.  Crashing waves keep the nests safe from mammalian predators but not necessarily from gulls.
(Any similarity between the title of this post and my personal life is completely incidental although if someone did a back bend to flash a bright blue gular patch at me, I might notice.)


  1. Thanks for still being the unruly pupil staring out of the classroom window at the nature beyond, rather than concentrating on lessons :o)

  2. IAT: wow your comment about being the inattentive pupil brought back a flood of memories of staring out the windows at the piney flatwoods next to St. Patricks grade school in Florida. Lots of birds and clouds to watch in that semi-tropical sky. Looks like I am still under the distracting influence of nature.


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