Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cormorant Rescue

The Double Crested Cormorant winters in the Holden Beach area and lives year round south of us in Florida. Yesterday I saw my first cormorant of the "fall season" - a juvenile marked as such by its white chest. I knew what is was immediately as they are a distinctive looking bird often called the "snake bird". They are black, relatively large, have a long snakelike head and a somewhat hooked beak. They are unique in that they have very little oil on their feathers which allows them to dive for food underwater. This also makes it so they have to dry themselves off after a swim. Cormorants are often seen on pilings with their wings spread out drying themselves.

The cormorant I saw yesterday was sitting on top of the water like a duck. This is not typical cormorant behavior. If you see them in the water, they're usually mostly submerged with only their snakelike head above the water. I knew something was wrong and, as I paddled closer, realized that the bird was caught in a gill net. Gill nets sit in the water, buoyed at the top and weighted at the bottom. This one was about 20 feet long, and the bird obviously swam into it underwater and got tangled.

Luckily my tour group was all about saving the bird - especially a 15 year-old named Christine. We pulled up along side the bird and while Christine held my boat I used my first aid scissors to cut the bird out of the net. Freed from the larger mass of the gill net, the bird was still horribly entangled. I carefully put the bird in the back hatch of Christine's kayak while it violently tried to attack me. The cormorant's head was the only thing not entangled.

Christine and I pulled up on the nearest bank, threw a towel over the bird's head, removed it from the kayak and proceed to cut it free. It took at least 6 or 7 minutes to carefully cut all the net away. Once the net was all removed I told Christine to back up and removed the towel. I was afraid the bird would be angry and might attack, but it was simply tired and walked away looking back over its shoulder at me like it wasn't exactly sure whether to say thank you or not. The bird found its way to the water and swam away. Hopefully it was okay and will stay away from gill nets in the future.

We saw a loggerhead turtle later on in the tour, just past the nets and up into the creek we tour by kayak. Hopefully he didn't suffer a similar fate.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Funky Fish

The classic NC coastal fish is the mullet - a medium sized silvery fish that travels in large schools and are often seen jumping out of the water. Mullet have the classic fish shape with one eye on each side of the head, pectoral fins on its sides, a dorsal fin on the back and a traditional tail fin. We often see mullets jumping out of the water while paddling in the Intracoastal Waterway.

Two not so classic looking NC fish are the oyster toadfish and the burrfish. Both can be found in the backwaters of Holden Beach, and both have been sighted on our kayak tours. Just this week I saw a burrfish hiding in the marsh grass and found two "Mud Toads" in abandoned crabpots along our tour route.

Oyster toadfish are a truely ugly fish - but sort of "so ugly they're cute". They are brown, have forward facing eyes, funny little pectoral fins, scaleless, wrinkled slimy skin and nasty sharp teeth. They can reach a length of 15 inches, but the ones I found were both under 6 inches long. Oyster toadfish eat crabs, anemones, clams, shrimp, sea urchins, mollusks and small fish. The males make a grunting noise to attract females and have the unique task of guarding the eggs lain by their mate. When pulled out of the water, they often make a distinctive gasping noise.

Burrfish are another funny little fish with forward facing eyes found in the marshlands behind Holden Beach. They have no teeth and instead have a beaklike jaw they use to eat mollusks, crustaceans, and sea urchins. Like a puffer fish, burrfish blow up when threatened, but where puffers are smooth, burrfish have obvious rigid spines on their bodies. The burrfish I encountered (who was only about 3 inches long) puffed up huge when he saw me, then darted away once I drifted by in my kayak. They are rather cute and look much like a cartoon fish.

While oyster toadfish can be eaten (if handled carefully, as they have a nasty bite), the flesh of the burrfish is toxic and shouldn't be consumed. Getting a good look at a fish without a hook and line isn't easy, but it can be done. Come take a tour with us and see for yourself.