A Great Cormorant Riding a Wave, a Swooping Magpie and a Gang of Geese

The ‘great cormorant’, formerly known simply as the ‘large black cormorant’, is unlikely to have objected to the name change. Flattering first names are the preserve of only a handful of Australian birds, such as the graceful honeyeater, the magnificent riflebird, the splendid fairy-wren, the superb fairy-wren and the powerful owl.

Heading the list of birds not quite so fortunate in this regard would almost certainly be the spangled drongo and the lesser noddy.

The great cormorant is said to prefer large bodies of still water. But they frequent coastal waters as well. In the Apollo Bay area, coastal waters are rarely still. This photo was taken from Point Bunbury earlier in the week. Great cormorants are often seen flying up and down the dunes diving and feeding just offshore from the beach south of Point Bunbury.
The great cormorant feeds mainly on fish which it catches by diving. It typically dives up to 20m in depth and stays submerged for up to a minute or so. It swims underwater using only its webbed feet, with its wings folded by its side. This contrasts with the Australasian gannet which uses both its webbed feet and its wings when it wishes to swim deeper than the 10m or so which it achieves from the momentum of its dive. This photo was also taken from Point Bunbury earlier in the week.
There was a moderate swell breaking between Point Bunbury and the mouth of the Barham River at Apollo Bay when this photo was taken. This great cormorant was cruising up and down the shorebreak diving and landing occasionally between waves, presumably feeding. It stayed well clear of the white water.
The great cormorant sports a distinctive bright yellow patch on the cheeks and is the largest of the Australian cormorant family. The other members are the black-faced cormorant, the pied cormorant, the little pied cormorant and the little black cormorant.

A great cormorant cutting it fine on a wave

These five photos are from a series taken at five frames per second in continuous shooting mode. On reviewing the photos of the day, I saw that they included a series of shots of a cormorant appearing to leave its departure from the face of the breaking wave a little late. In the first photo, it appears almost airborne. But the subsequent photos show it seemingly overtaken by the advancing and rising wave and failing to get airborne, culminating in it getting mixed up with the white water. The next photos following in the sequence (not shown below) do not show the cormorant at all. So I can’t confirm whether it became airborne or was submerged as the wave passed over it. If it was the latter, I have no doubt it would have survived given its impressive underwater swimming skills. Perhaps this particular bird hadn’t seen the memo about great cormorants having a preference for still water.

An alternative explanation of course is that this great cormorant, being a master of flying and diving, decided to have a crack at surfing. In that case, he rode the unbroken section of the wave very well, completing the ride by deftly turning back into the white water to flick out over the back as it began to close out on him.

Synchronised great cormorants

Silver gull coming in for a landing just before sunset

Yet another graceful glide to a perfect landing.

Swell breaking over Little Henty Reef

These two shots were taken from a corner of the Great Ocean Road in Apollo Bay, near the banks of the Barham River looking due south. The breaking waves on the south of Little Henty Reef (just off Hayley Point at Marengo) were at a distance of just over 2000m when I took this photo. The sea between the dunes and the white water is Mounts Bay. The swell on this occasion was only moderate, but it was big enough for the offshore bombies (3kms or so ESE of this reef and out of frame) to be working.

Magpies

The Australian magpie is very intelligent, sings most beautifully and in breeding season swoops on any person who it perceives to be a threat. The swooping behaviour is not designed to attack, but to deter. In flight, making contact “…could be very dangerous for the magpie because impact could break its neck.” (Australian Magpie (2nd Edition) (2019) Kaplan G, CSIRO Publishing, 206).

The magpie is a very vocal species. They message extensively to each other, and more generally to the world at large to defend territory or nests. They can recognise individual magpie voices. They have a quiet warbling song, and a much louder powerful carolling. The carolling is often used in territorial defence, but a group of magpies can also carol in chorus after a predator has been successfully repelled – a bit like a football team singing their club song after a win. Magpies also duet, imitating each other’s call. (Australian Magpie, 185-189). Their carolling is one of the most beautiful bird sounds I have heard.

Generations of magpies have lived in the trees along the creek beside my house. This joyous carolling is a common and welcome sound.

There is evidence suggesting that magpies “…can distinguish between individual human faces and learn who is kind or hostile to them”. (Australian Magpie, 127). The magpies whose territory includes my house know that a carefully chosen small snack is sometimes on offer. Over the years I have had many fly from some distance to my feet on the lawn or the deck rail where I am standing when I call out “Maggie”. They will take a small snack if offered, but after eating it will sometimes just stay there a metre or so from me, looking at me. Of course I talk to them, and they are good listeners, leaving when they are ready.

Sometimes they initiate contact with me by landing on the deck rail outside the window closest to where I am inside the house and peering through the window as if to attract my attention. I usually respond by taking a small snack outside and as I walk towards the door to the outside deck, they hop or half fly along the railing to meet me when I come outside. I have made no effort to train them to do this, but one thing is clear, they have successfully trained me to come at their bidding.

Two of my grandchildren sharing the joy of contact with one of the local magpies.

The greens keeper at the local golf club. There is one magpie (a male) which nests in the trees in the background in this photo, which has declared Damian to be his enemy number one. So as Damian does his rounds of the fairways, greens and tees, this magpie regularly swoops on him in full nest-defence mode. The photos below were taken while I was talking to Damian with the mower turned off. The magpie engaged in a relentless cycle of aggressively swooping on him (but never touching him), then briefly retreating to a series of different locations in a close radius around Damian, from which the next sortie would be planned and executed. Interestingly, the magpie never showed any interest in me whatsoever, and on some occasions actually landed near me as it planned its next swoop on Damian. It clearly recognised Damian as its target person.
Most magpies never breed. Only a small minority of birds have surviving offspring. One study suggests that only 14% of all magpies ever reproduce. (Australian Magpie, 99). Accordingly, “….breeding magpies are the high achievers of magpie society. They have survived years of hardship, fought hard to get a territory and have been able to find a partner. The magpies that breed are healthy, mature, experienced and possibly the best stock we have.” (Australian Magpie, 210). In short, Damian’s nemesis is a Top Gun magpie. This tree branch was one of the perimeter points from which it swooped on Damian. The body language of this bird tells the story of his immediate intention.
Damian has taken to wearing flexible nylon wire ties on his cap to encourage the magpie to keep its distance. The magpie here does not look at all deterred.
Magpies use wing flapping and beating, as well as beak clapping as strong and aggressive warning signals. (Australian Magpie, 185). This bird was totally in the zone whether half a metre from Damian’s head, or on the ground regrouping for the next fly past. It seems to have a bit of a wild look in its eye here.
So much for the deterrent value of nylon wire ties. This bird has never actually physically struck Damian. But it seems to revel in swooping him.
The message is clear.
One of the varied approach paths for a close proximity fly past was below the radar at almost ground level. I love the focus on this bird as it manoeuvres getting ready to climb up for another display right in Damian’s face. The undercarriage hasn’t even been retracted here.
All guns blazing.
Compared to the earlier shot of the bird below the radar, this one shows even more intensity as the ‘fists’ are clenched. The target is in the cross-hairs of that laser-like stare and this approach was at speed.
Damian remained impassive, but the magpie was continuously otherwise.
Yet another perimeter location from which to continue the mission. What a beautiful bird. Feathers slightly ruffled by the wind and I suspect by all that acrobatic manoeuvring.
Climbing away after the final fly past at high speed with landing gear retracted. Full sound effects.

Cropped enlargements from two of the above photos, showing the detail of this magnificent bird in full defence mode.

Apollo Bay Harbour Residents and Visitors

These are domestic geese, who belong to nobody, and to everybody in Apollo Bay. They live in and around the harbour. They are arrogant, very pushy when they think food is in the offing and they often get on each other’s goat resulting in some cranky honking and hissing and extended-neck fake charges at each other. They swaggered towards me with a superior and proprietorial air. It was significantly less than a welcome. I felt as though I had wandered into a bad neighbourhood. So I avoided direct eye contact, kept moving and felt grateful to be ignored.
The gang leader.
This goose seemed to be drinking, but it would have been salt water. I can’t find any suggestion anywhere that it has some sort of water desalination filter (such as is found in certain seabirds e.g. penguins, albatrosses, pelicans) – but maybe it does.
It was definitely eating this sea lettuce (green algae).
Goose giving me an unblinking stare from close quarters. I blinked first.
Spur-winged plover.
The sooty oyster-catcher and the Australian pied oyster catcher. They spend much of their life on rocky tidal shorelines. These strongly built birds use “…powerful pecks, stabs or hammering to open heavily armoured prey including mussels, limpets, chitons and sea urchins.” (Menkhorst, P and others, The Australian Bird Guide, 2017, CSIRO Publishing. 122). The sooty oyster catcher nests on offshore islands and sea stacks. The pied oyster catcher nests “…on ground in open settings near shore, especially on beaches and dunes…” (Menkhorst, P & others, 122). These birds have many common features, and share the same habitat. I find it interesting that they evolved in different directions with their contrasting plumage. What evolutionary purpose is served by this difference?
Australian pied oyster catcher and silver gull ignoring the ‘birds of a feather’ principle.
Crested terns. I always think of the crest on this bird as being like some sort of edgy hairdo that only a cool bird would sport. Not sure what’s going on with the wing action here – could be drying their wings.
Crests lowered (not fallen) and preening taking priority over feeding for this pair.
Apollo Bay harbour, with the air full of crested terns and lesser crested terns wheeling in all directions not long after one of their periodic group takeoffs.

7 thoughts on “A Great Cormorant Riding a Wave, a Swooping Magpie and a Gang of Geese

  1. Hi John,
    Thanks for sharing this, I love the photos and the commentary, it did make me laugh! Poor old Damien, a challenging part of his job no doubt!
    Keep up the great work,
    Liz.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed the post Liz. Damian is pretty philosophical about being this magpie’s principal target. I’d love to get up to your part of the world some time to take a few photos of the wildlife and the weather.
      Cheers,
      John

      Like

      1. Hi John,
        There is always plenty of room up here, so anytime, we would love to have you and Liz stay.
        We recently did the jumping crocodile cruise, the kites were really impressive – the tour guides throw small pieces of meat up into the air, and the birds catch them in their talons and eat the food mid flight – apparently the only species to do this.
        My parents loved your blog too, my Mum is a bit mad about birds also:)
        Liz.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi John, I love your work. Your bird photos ar amazing and for more than one reason love the series on th Magpies!
    You should submit your bird photo series into “Birds Australia” , they might like to run your story told!
    Cheers Sue

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Sue. Very pleased to hear you like the bird photos. Australian birds certainly are a gift that keeps on giving for anyone with a camera. I hope that a certain mob of ‘magpies’ normally seen around Olympic Park perform well for you this evening!
      Cheers,
      John

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks once again John for those great bird shots and your well researched commentary. Regarding the swooping magpie precaution advice I remember reading a few years ago about a ‘controlled’ research study that looked at the different strategies that have been put forward over the years. For standardization it had the same cyclist on the same bike on the same stretch of road and with the same person photographing. Sequentially he would have a standard helmet, one with sunglasses on backwards, eyes painted on the back of the helmet, wires of some sort sticking out of the helmet. None of them made any difference. Same swooping magpie every time. Finally, he tried it without a helmet and lo and behold no swoop! I think it might must have been a cycling magazine because it did state that this trick was not recommended!
    All the best, Richard

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Richard. Pleased you enjoyed the bird photos.

      I think that once a nesting magpie identifies you as a threat to be repelled, that’s it – you will be swooped throughout the nesting season. In the experiment you referred to it seems the helmeted rider was always swooped (regardless of minor variations in appearance), but was not identified by the magpie as the person it sought to repel when the helmet was not worn.The converse might apply. It might well be the case that if a bike rider without a helmet was selected by a magpie as a target, the wearing of different jumpers and sunglasses on/off etc might not deter the magpie, but if a helmet was worn, the magpie might fail to recognise that person as the target. I don’t believe nesting magpies swoop all comers, as evidenced by my apparent immunity while standing near Damian the greens keeper the other day while he was relentlessly assailed. It would be interesting to see if Damian would be swooped on when not on the ride-on mower.

      My local magpies clearly recognise me – and not just when I am on the house deck in the usual position offering food. I have had one of the magpies I ‘know’ fly down to me in the street when I was walking with Liz and when I was not even aware it was around. It cruised past me in normal flight at head level. It was not a swoop, but rather a friendly approach.

      Two magpies I have known for a year or two have built a nest in a gum tree beside the house (on the banks of Milford Creek). We think there are eggs in the nest. I am intrigued to know whether I will have immunity from swooping with this pair. So far it appears that I do.

      Cheers,

      John.

      Like

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