A Beauty, Not a Beast

Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) sunning at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

 

If beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so, too, might ugliness. Underwater, the cormorant’s a swift, graceful predator: astonishing in its ability to glide and dive, sweeping up uncounted fish in the process. But once it exchanges the water for land, many consider the bird — songless, lacking in bright colors, awkward and somewhat ill-proportioned — to be as ugly as any on the planet.

When I had the opportunity to spend some time with a remarkably accepting cormorant recently, a closer look revealed some interesting, and even attractive, characteristics.


Its lightly serrated beak, hooked at the end, allows it to hold its prey firmly. Why this one continually opened and closed its beak while I watched, I can’t say; perhaps it was showing off for the camera.

Its long, flexible neck, capable of twisting and bending like a heron’s, allows it to preen even the most hard-to-reach feathers. Secretions from its uropygial gland, more commonly known as the preen gland, are composed of  a mixture of waxes, fatty acids, lipids, and water.

As the bird preens, rubbing the glandular secretions through its plumage,  some waterproofing may take place, but the primary benefit is to keep its feathers supple and in good condition. The familiar spread-wing posture cormorants assume when out of the water generally is agreed to be a method of feather drying.

For years, I saw cormorants only at a distance, and assumed them to be pure black. Instead, their feathers are a mixture of brown and black, with occasional flashes of iridescence. The brown head feathers, thick and velvety,  are especially attractive, and help to set off their turquoise eyes. Sitting eye-to-eye with such a placid and receptive creature is an uncommon treat.

Comments always are welcome. For a poem dedicated to this fine bird, see my current post at The Task at Hand.

 

 

Far From the Madding Crowd

 

What may be the most well-known phrase from Thomas Gray’s poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” certainly fits this view of a road leading through the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.

On January 6, the madding crowd was elsewhere, leaving the birds, the alligators, and the occasional nature lover to enjoy one another’s company — and the magnificent sky show — in peace.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on Thomas Gray (1716-1771), visit this Poetry Foundation page.

 

A New Year? Time to Start Hopping

 

At first it was only the palmetto leaf, a bit of crisp variety along the edge of the tangled, soggy slough, that caught my attention. Then, I noticed a smooth patch of green lying on the leaf. Moving closer, still uncertain of its identity, I reached out to touch one end, and it woke up.

The patch of green turned out to be an inch-long tree frog — Hyla cinerea — napping in the sunlight. A nocturnal creature that spends most of the night seeking out insects in swamps, sloughs, and stream edges, it had just settled down for a short winter’s nap when I showed up.

It surprised me that the frog didn’t hop away; only later did I learn that green tree frogs often walk, rather than leaping. After one good stretch, the frog moved a bit farther up the leaf and then settled in again, apparently willing to tolerate a curious human visitor.

Getting eye-to-eye with the creature, I asked, “Are you ready for the new year?” I swear I saw him smile as he asked in return, “Are you?”

 

Comments always are welcome.