Column: Wildlife Watch with Simon Zonenblick - Like meditative sentinels in the drizzly grey
Sometimes on a morning, as I walk over the bridge, I see a cormorant by the Calder, dark body poised on a log, beak tilted at the sunrise, like an early rising pirate.
There is something primeval about cormorants.
Like jet black pterodactyls, they haunt the riverside on the outskirts of Sowerby Bridge, or perch on abandoned railings.
Spreadeagled, wings outstretched, they seem to me like huge Prehistoric bats – around a meter in length from beak to tail.
As the RSPB point out, a cormorant’s lengthy neck lends a reptilian element to their appearance.
Distinctive, with sheeny black feathers and slightly chunky beaks, they are mistaken only for the similarly sized and coloured shags, but with white patches around the face and sometimes elsewhere.
There are around forty thousand cormorants in Britain, with a significant wintering population.
When I see cormorants locally, they are almost always stock-still, and solitary.
They nest in colonies, though, and I’ve watched them in twos and threes in reservoirs and ponds further afield.
They haunt lagoons, rocky shores and estuaries, but here in the valley it is the river that seems to lure them, with its regular supplies of fish – making up the vast majority of their diets - and its tangled banks, among whose straggling weeds their messy nests are twined.
Along with dawn sightings, I’ve seen cormorants on late afternoons, meditative sentinels in the drizzly grey.
Sometimes they seem to prefer the darkened margins of the river, merging into the shadows.
Other times, they will pose proudly on stones in the centre of the water, brooding and unmoving.
It is often said that cormorant wings are not waterproof, but this is not strictly so.
Like most birds, cormorants secrete a glandular oil of water resistant properties, but not in sufficient volume to provide full protection.
The microscopic structure of their feathers also renders them ‘wettable’ – reducing buoyancy to enable deeper dives – which is why cormorants are often seen spreading their wings to dry them, which also helps the feathers realign and absorb heat in sunshine, and assists with balance and parasite removal.
Even though cormorants spend a lot of time in water, it is in this statuesque pose that most tend to see them, and how I have come to expect cormorants, totemic and inert, unfurling long tapered wings like black flags pinned to the Calder’s mast.
Later in the day, cormorant are harder to discern, but from the same bridge above the river I’ve still made out their immobile black bodies, blurring in the fading light.
Those thick beaks, comically splashed in custard yellow, suggest knavish clowns, nocturnal ne’er-do-wells, moonlit witches weaving watery spells, casting green-eyed glances
on the ice cold
Irresistibly eerie, they will sweep downstream, submerge themselves below the surface, before flapping up into a silent glide, bending through the dusk like thin black boomerangs, until their dark shapes dwindle into the distance, becoming one with night.