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On Cormorants and Great Blue Herons

September 6, 2011

Finally, after a summer full of double-breasted cormorants and a lone blue heron, I saw two great blue herons last weekend. From a distance, sure, but I’ll take what I can get.

Cormorants have been plentiful on the East River this year. They seem especially fond of watching the new ferries from atop broken piers, and I think I saw one or even a few of them more Williamsburg and Greenpoint mornings than not. But it was a trip to Montauk that really put them on display. There’s some sort of shellfishery operating in the northwest part of Napeague Harbor. Kayaking that sheltered waterway on the narrow strip of land between Montauk and Napeague, I saw scores and scores of cormorants huddled on a small island—until they all took flight above my head to get closer to the fish.

The cormorant, I’m told, symbolizes eternal life—and deceit. Its way of perching suggests Christ on the cross, and Milton’s Satan took the bird as his disguise in Paradise Lost. More mundanely, the bird has a reputation as an insatiable glutton. It feasts on the fish that human fishers would have as their own. I once watched a cormorant in New York Harbor’s Red Hook waters spend a good ten minutes puzzling over what it was going to do with the seemingly too-large eel it had just caught, only to finally give up and swallow it whole in a single startling gulp. Fisherman have found a way around the bird’s voraciousness: They train cormorants to catch fish for them, and a leather band around the helper’s neck keeps the bird from swallowing the catch.

The heron (also beautifully known as the shitepoke, thanks to its habit of defecating when flushed from its grasslands) shares some of its cousin’s reputation as a hungry hunter, but it seems to get a bit more respect. The gorgeously ungainly heron gets credit for its skills, judgment and independence. Several mythologies connect the heron to the dead and the underworld, to magic and secret knowledge.

In the coves of Georgetown Island, Maine, I’ve been lucky enough to kayak right alongside great blues. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens doesn’t offer that proximity, at least by land; the few herons there stick to the sea grass and the water, well off the paths. Still, espying a pair there through my binoculars was one of the outdoor highlights of my summer.


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