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November 29, 2021     Post 135
Bird Island

A newly created island lies austere, untouched by human activity, and quite smelly on the door step of Blind Sodus Bay. It’s home to several hundred cormorants who are now using it as a rookery. I wanted to see it in its “natural state” before Blind Sodus Bay received its REDI funded human built barrier bar at a projected cost of 13 million dollars so I visited last August with my kayak and camera.

The cormorants showed up shortly after the 2017 high water year eliminated the continuity of the barrier bar that once protected the Bay from the lake’s open waters. The birds soon started nesting in the willows of the one time bar, and by the time I visited they had established dozens, possibly hundreds, of nests in the willows and cottonwoods of the bar.

Not surprisingly the trees were getting the worst of the deal. The powerful acidic fertilizer of numerous birds’ constant poop was quickly killing off the trees whose roots had stabilized the barrier bar.

Barrier bars protect warm clear shallow nursery areas that provide important spawning and juvenile fish production to the open lake. Historically the barrier bars retreated with the over all shoreline as it eroded and recessed and the trees, especially the willows, went with them. But for unknown reasons the recent high water events were particularly hard on several of these protective features.

(I have my theories as to what has changed. See previous Log on Line posts or the beach chapter in my "Natural History of Lake Ontario.)

In early August many nests were empty. At least three juvenile eagles perched or glided along the shoreline as did a number of turkey buzzards. I photographed one nest, empty, with a cormorant on one side and a turkey vulture on the other. I wondered if the one time nest occupant was now being digested by the vulture.Were the eagles and buzzards taking advantage of meals from failed cormorant nests? (Cormorant nests are a bit on the sketchy side I would say from an architectural stand point so dying baby birds might fall out especially on a windy day). I wondered about the source of the squabble I saw between the three blue herons I saw beneath the trees.

The contrast between bleached dead and dying trees, the shrill piping of many dozens of hungry juveniles, and the constant coming and going of the adults feeding their offspring or simply hanging around the sun blasted stony rookery was a bit surreal. So much life and death in such profusion among all the croaking, flapping piping and mumbling birds was a stark contrast.

Yet the birds behaved with great order and precision as they came fed the young, hung out and left. I didn’t see anyone steal from their neighbor. I didn’t see any nestlings barging over to take more than their fair share. Crammed together as they were the big black birds went about their business in an orderly way that seemed quite remarkable. I wish our politicians would take note.

I paddled away marveling at this thriving colony of “evil” cormorants whose appetite for fish valued by human anglers is legendary. Surprisingly no one had been out there shooting or harassing them with firecrackers and flashing reflective tape as on Lake Champlain or Oneida. Nature is not always pretty or tranquil, but it is frequently fascinating to watch the changes along our lakeshore.

Read more about the cormorant in my new book “A Natural History of Lake Ontario” available at my www.susanpgateley.com link to Etsy Store.

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