I am back from an extended stay in the city. Traffic is just not my thing. I am really glad to revisit our marsh after a three-week hiatus.
I drove the mostly empty roads around the Bottoms at 6 in the morning. My garden is a catastrophe with weeds — but I also have tomatoes before July 4th for the first time in a couple of years. I took a break from that work to restore and retune myself with our marsh. It is always good.
There are not many birds out there right now. There are also more birds than you would expect. Curtis is doing a nesting bird count along a defined route for one of the organizations. Have I told you lately how much KWEC does for conservation and the visitors that come to Great Bend? We are very fortunate to have their energy and wisdom in our midst. Curtis is also kind — I was sure that I saw a Pied Grebe with babies by the outhouse — I don’t think they breed here and he didn’t even blink or call me dumb. Ha! They were probably baby teal.
One bird that we see way too much of is the Double-breasted Cormorant. They are a black diving bird with an orange-tinted beak. The beak is also hooked and BIG! They have a long skinny neck and usually sit low in the water. The reason is that their feathers are not water resistant. They can dive up to 300 feet according to several sources. Their feet are webbed, and they use both their feet and wings to dive after fish and such. IF their feathers were waterproof, they wouldn’t be able to dive as deep or stay as long under water. Their hooked bill is deadly and precise. These birds are hated in some areas for just taking a bite out of a walleye or trout or salmon and making a very severe wound that either kills or spoils that fish for human consumption. They are also protected by law. Some people call them “water turkeys.” When they fly, it always requires a running start and lots of wing beating to get enough air under them to launch. You will see them spending a lot of time sitting in the sun with wings out-stretched to facilitate the drying process. They are very social and will rest with pelicans and gulls on the islands and hunting blinds at the Bottoms.
One of the more unusual facts about these birds is that in Asia they are used to fish for humans. They are trained to dive and catch fish. The owner usually has a ring of some type around their neck to prevent them from swallowing the fish. Standard practice lets the cormorant eat every seventh fish. I have seen video of that process — it is fascinating. Their beak is remarkable — I often see them with a bull head, carp or shad stabbed completely through the body and being prepared to go head first down the hatch of the cormorant.
These birds are ugly. They damage a lot of fish. They are also unique and interesting to watch as they swim with bright eyes on the water searching for an unlucky target. Like everything else, they have their place. It will be worth your time to go spend a few minutes with these masters of the deep dive and sun bathing.
Doctor Dan Witt is a retired physician and nature enthusiast.