Pelagic Cormorant

August 13th, 2019: An introduction to birding at Lighthouse Park

My excellent massage therapist had expressed interest in birding after it came up in one of our appointments. I offered to take her out, so out we went. She picked Lighthouse Park–a beautiful spot just south of Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver–and we headed out on the bus together.

Satellite view of Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver
Satellite view of Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver

We got there mid morning and had great weather. It was a little quieter than I expected, but the passerines remained chatty. I loaned her my spare pair of binoculars and we had fun picking out birds (almost invariably new to her) in the park’s huge conifers.

A "nurse log" at Lighthouse Park
A “nurse log” at Lighthouse Park

I like Lighthouse Park because it provides a great example of what a lot of this area really was like. Stanley Park has that trait as well, but without being at the foot of a mountain. The treed but rocky slopes of Lighthouse Park make great habitat for some area specialties. There are large numbers of Chestnut-backed Chickadees in the part, for example. In mixed flocks we also picked out some first-year Black-throated Gray Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, Warbling Vireo, and Red-breasted Nuthatch. (This park is also perhaps the best spot in Vancouver for Cassin’s Vireo, but sadly we didn’t see any today.)

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch

After getting an idea of passerines, we headed to Jack Pine Point for lunch on the southwest side of the park. It’s a nice exposed spot to watch pelagic birds fly by. With the low tide today, however, the real pelagics (alcids, loons, etc.) were too far out to see. Still, plenty of gulls flew by and we spent some time learning to separate Double-crested Cormorant from Pelagic Cormorant.

This is one of those IDs that can be sorted out pretty quickly. But if you’d never done anything like this before, they’re just “two black birds that fly along the water.” So we started broad, noting the more “streamlined” look of the Pelagic; the white “tail lights” in the breeding plumage. Then the narrower, straighter neck in flight, the smaller size, longer tail. And then you’re at narrower bill with sharper angle at the forehead, no yellow in the bill or face, juveniles not light-breasted as the Double-crested, etc. She was IDing them in no time!

A Pelagic Cormorant flies past with nesting material (in the spring)
A Pelagic Cormorant flies past with nesting material (in the spring)

Having grown up with Double-crested Cormorants around the great lakes, the Pelagics still hold a kind of novelty for me. Plus, if you’re ever looked at them up close, you know their plumage is absolutely astonishing in the right light. Their iridescence seems to shift through the spectrum as they glide past you, or as the sun moves past them on their roosts.

A roosting Pelagic Cormorant
A roosting Pelagic Cormorant

In Vancouver, they’re often on bridge structure or buoys. But some of my favourite memories of them is kayaking with them while they dive underwater, popping up with a fish in their beak (which they invariably thrash around and swallow whole). They strike me as having a lot of personality and I never tire of them!

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