A Shoreline Game

Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula) and Pelagic Cormorant (Urile pelagicus)

At first glance I thought it was just a coincidence. I’d seen about a dozen Snowy Egrets on the banks of the North Basin in recent days, and the Pelagic Cormorant was an uncommon but not rare sight. So, seeing them close together seemed like just one of those random encounters. But then I noticed something very odd. The egret was following the cormorant. The slender black waterbird was working hard on the shallow margin, digging its beak into cracks between the rocks, frequently rolling around and splashing. I’d never seen this cormorant, nor its bigger cousin the Double-crested, working with this intensity so close to shore. This bird can dive more than 100 meters deep, so what was it doing here in mere inches? Was the cormorant performing for its audience? The Snowy Egret followed the cormorant all the way from the parking area on Marina Boulevard, where I first saw the pair, north to the Open Circle Viewpoint, watching it the whole time. For all its effort, the cormorant scored only one minnow-size fish. The egret occasionally focused on possible prey among the rocks, but caught nothing.

There were no hostilities between the two birds until at one point the egret slipped on a rock and stepped awkwardly into the water, and it seemed to me that the cormorant bumped into its legs. That apparently was against the rules of their game. The cormorant launched one thrust of the beak against the egret, as if to tell it to stay in its lane. The egret thought that was unfair. It stalked the cormorant and at the next opportunity, lashed at it with its beak. The cormorant thrust right back. For a few seconds the two birds did a fencing duel, without either side scoring a touch. Then the parties retreated and the cormorant went back to its labors. But the egret still bore a grudge, and pecked at the cormorant twice more, again without contact by either side.

Then a second egret intervened with a croak, and the two flew south together just about back to the parking area. When I arrived there, the cormorant — or its twin — was also there, with the same hard-working performance. This time it had not only one but two, then three, ultimately four Snowy Egrets watching and following it northward along the rocky shore. There were no hostilities as long as I watched.

I’ve never seen this kind of interaction between these birds, and I’ve not seen it mentioned in the texts readily available to me.

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) and Pelagic Cormorant (Urile pelagicus)

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