HERE BE DRAGONS

Once upon a time at a nature reserve well documented in these blogs there was an evil looking big black bird. It had an oily sheen to its plumage, its wings were strangely placed in the middle of its body and it held its flexible neck stiffly outstretched during flight. To me it looked as if it had come straight out of the pages of an old fantasy novel. It looked, strange as it may sound, like a dragon.

The official RSPB description says that the “sinister” CORMORANT "has an almost primitive appearance with its long neck making it appear reptilian".  Again, like a dragon. I'm not wrong, the RSPB says so. I'm not arguing with them, they might withhold my payment. Then again, I'm just a volunteer so my wages for standing outside the Welcome Shed in all weathers is just the occasional cake and all the coffee that I can drink. However given my caffeine appetite, they might actually be better off just giving me the cash.

Anyway, adult Cormorants are great birds to watch and they definitely look a bit lizardesque, but their youngsters have occasionally been confused for a very different creature. Their overall blackness countered by a white belly has caused several guests to tentatively approach me as they leave the reserve. “Excuse me. I know this is going to sound daft but.... I'm sure I've just seen a Penguin”. A large, upright black bird with a white front? I can see where they're coming from so, 'daft'? No, not really. Just very, very unlikely.

Cormorants may not belch fire but they're not averse to water either. It's a delight to see them dive and, if you're close enough and the water's clear enough, watch as they fly through the sub-surface world chasing fish. Just like Penguins do. But unlike Penguins, or ducks and geese for that matter, Cormorants are not naturally very waterproof. They're not too well endowed in the preen gland department, which means that they don't produce as much waterproofing oil as many other birds that spend most of their days in and around water. That's why you'll often see a Cormorant standing on a log with its wings outstretched, drying out. It may look unusual and even slightly comical but if they didn't do this they'd become waterlogged and could potentially drown. That's something of an occupational hazard for a creature that makes its living by fishing. I'm glad that they evolved a way to avoid it.

Some people have trouble telling the difference between a Cormorant and a Shag. That's easy. If you see a bird that you think is a Cormorant but it's got a green tinge to it and a bit of a quiff on its head, it's a Shag. However, those are coastal birds that should never be seen as far inland as Old Moor. If you've see your bird here in South Yorkshire, the odds are extremely high that it's a Cormorant. Also, Cormorants are big black birds. Shags are carpets or haircuts.

There's another species that has visited us in numbers recently and this one also somewhat reminds me of a dragon. GOOSANDERS are distinctive diving ducks with a deadly toothy beak, similar to that of Smaug the dragon from The Hobbit. Big serrated bills make for big serrated smiles. These grins look beautiful so long as you're not on the pointy end of them. If a fish gets caught in there then they have as much chance of escape as a gold-stealing Hobbit would.

I love the fact that in winter pretty much all the female Goosanders stay here in Britain but most of the males hop off to Norway for a jolly boy's outing. I like to think of them looking for real life Vikings over there and, when none are to be found these days, then they celebrate in the way that only victorious dragons can. “There you go lads, we've kept them at bay for another year. Pop another keg then we'll get back to the ladies...”
If Cormorants and Goosanders are modern-day dragons, then surely GREY HERONS are just dinosaurs in the wrong time period. Imagine if, instead of feathers, Herons had scales and walked on land. Then rewatch Jurassic Park. See what I mean? Herons are the closest thing you'll see to a modern era dinosaur. I once saw a Great Blue Heron in Canada. These monstrous birds are very similar to our own Heron that you'll find beside your local pond (or indeed here at your favourite RSPB reserve) but about a foot taller. It was standing in the reeds on a foggy morning, looking totally prehistoric and otherworldly. It was truly massive too, only marginally smaller than my own vertically challenged wife. Terrifying and magnificent (the heron, not the wife. Although... )
Herons, Cormorants and Goosanders can all be seen at Old Moor and many other RSPB sites around the country. At this time of year they look great, very impressive, especially when they loom out of the fog on a typical winter's grey day.
So come see them, and perhaps you'll spot these other birds too...
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