Not that this Little shag could care less. All that matters to it, I suspect, is soaking up that sun and digesting the morning’s fish. A week or more ago, I’d stopped near Inconstant Point to watch a flock of gulls, a gannet inspecting the bay, terns doing laps along the shoreline; I put the binoculars down and suddenly, close to the shingle beach, a Little shag popped up from beneath the surface of the sea, a small, slender fish thrashing in its beak. A flick of the head, a quick flash of silver. Further inland, it might have been someone’s goldfish . Life in transition.
The bird looks down. Why has he stopped—is this danger? He’s looking away, doing something; now he’s raised something to his eye and it’s pointing at me. Something round and staring. This is making me nervous.
I lower the camera slowly and look away, turn my body side on and wait, occasionally looking out of the corner of my eye. Little shags abound along the Wellington coast. Every time I biked out towards Pencarrow Head I’d see them on the rocks, half asleep or preening or perhaps meditating, sometimes with wings widespread, drying in the sun. Alone, in twos or threes, sometimes aggregated in larger groups on a favoured roost. One evening I wandered on foot along the shore between Eastbourne and Days Bay, and even there, so close to the roaring traffic, shags perched unperturbed—between a rock and a tarred place, perhaps, but not caught there.
evening tide —
the shag’s rock
becomes an island
Looking into the low sun that evening, I saw everything as darkness and light; the world as shapes and boundaries. Shadows lengthen, like histories. Little shags, it seems, have longer histories than any other cormorants —a history stretching back about 12 million years . Ironically, although it has the longest history, it’s the smallest of New Zealand’s shags. This one, however, peering down at me from its superior position, has no shadow. But what of its personal history? Where and when was it born; what has it seen; how narrowly has it escaped being eaten; where did it shelter and how did it eat during the big storm a few days ago? What is it like to be this shag, sitting in the cold, clear wind and warm sun on an eroded tin roof?
He’s walking away now; good. My fish has moved on, making room for more. Ahhh...[a long streak on the far side of the roof]... that’s better. Here we go then, the terns have found a school of something.
At the end of the jetty I look back. The shag’s gone from the roof. Maybe tomorrow it’ll be back, or maybe it’ll be digesting somewhere else. Who knows. It may have cast no shadow on the roof, or the sky, or the sea, but this bird has left something far less ephemeral. It has left itself, imprinted on my memory.
1. Kawaupaka, Phalacrocorax melanoleucos. Elsewhere, Little shags are often called Little pied cormorants (see note 3). The New Zealand subspecies is brevirostris.
2. “Diet varies greatly with habitat but is mainly small fish (less than 13 cm long) and freshwater crayfish, with the occasional frog and tadpole. The main inland prey are smelt, bullies and goldfish, whereas the main marine species taken are bullies, flounder, sole and smelt.” [Heather, B.D., Robertson, H.A. 2005. The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, (revised edition). Auckland, Viking (Penguin). 440 pp. ISBN 0 14 302040 4.]
3. What’s the difference between a shag and a cormorant? Nothing, or vernacular, it seems. Shags and cormorants were distinguished either by behavioural or morphological characteristics but the two classifications didn’t agree. Now, genetic analysis suggests shags and cormorants are not distinct groups; this research suggests all might best be included in the single genus, Phalacrocorax. [Kennedy, M., Gray, R.D., Spencer, H.G. 2000. The Phylogenetic Relationships of the Shags and Cormorants: Can Sequence Data Resolve a Disagreement between Behavior and Morphology? Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 17 (3): 345–359.]
4. Kennedy et al. 2000; op. cit.
Photos (don't bother clicking on them; they're all full size (blogger is being idiosyncratic again, so I've had to resize them)):
1. Little shag, Eastbourne, Wellington harbour.
2. Jetty at Petone, Wellington harbour.
3. This is the one. Jetty at Petone, Wellington harbour.
Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor