19 June 2006

The shag who spied me

A Little shag [1]—the white-throated phase—sits hunched on the apex of the little shed on the jetty. Morning sun; a blue winter sky, the moon still in it. You can almost see the warmth being absorbed into the black feathers. The bird’s feet curl, black over the faded aquamarine of the tin flashing, the dark webbing between the toes calling up thoughts of pterodactyls’ wings. It’s a visual pun—‘pterodactyl’ means ‘winged finger’—but misleading: birds are most commonly considered to have evolved not from pterosaurs but from theropod dinosaurs. Pterosaurs weren’t even dinosaurs, just their contemporaries.

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 [2]. 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 [3]—a history stretching back about 12 million years [4]. 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


Duncan said...

Another nice one Pete. Shags are the commonest waterbirds on the Gippsland Lakes, countless thousands of Little Black, Little Pied. Great, and a few Pied make their living there. Despite their ubiquity I still enjoy watching them fish, or preen, they seem to have an indefinable air of self containment about them.

butuki said...

Funny how so many different kinds of creatures are so attuned to eyes being upon them. Almost like some kind of invisible x-ray beams from the pupils and alerts them. And just like you did_ turning your body aside_ allays them, too.

The Great Cormorants that inhabit the waters of Japan are so skittish that even from twenty-five meters away if I so much as glance at one of them in the water they begin to immediatelly go flapping away. Even the Little Egrets are easier to approach, though they are pretty skittish, too.

When I visited the Shetlands and the Orkneys in 1995 I spent about six weeks strolling the beaches and seaside cliffs, watching gannets, shags, black guillemots, puffins, arctic and great skuas, and my favorite, fulmars. I still feel the sound of their calls in the air above me, like a city of angels calling me to the breakers.

Anonymous said...

"the shag who spied me" "a rock and a tarred place" Ow.

Anonymous said...

That's a very apt description, Duncan. Shags do seem to have that particular demeanour.

Butuki, those Great cormorants sound as nervy as our putangitangi (paradise shelducks). The only reasonable photos of them I managed were where they were habituated to tourists — ironic, really.

Yes, Clare, I know... Actually, I stole "the shag who spied me" from the name of a rock climbing route in the South Island. I couldn't bypass something that good.

Anonymous said...

hello, just dropping by to say hello. i've enjoyed checking out your blog every so often, and i finally started my own blog! i'm planning to post mostly about rock climbing, ice climbing, etc.. i added a link to your blog on my "blogroll", and i was hoping you would link back to my blog from yours? in any case, keep up the good blogging. hopefully you'll stop by mine soon.

KSG said...

Fabulous play on, and with, words Pete - and the pics as always send shivers up my spine....! Brilliant.

Those little shags do seem so incredibly aware of their environment and in tune with "something" I find myself constantly trying to pick up on....only to find myself watching their shrinking flight into the distance before I can quite get there...as if I ever would!

I am always completely captivated with your descriptions of your personal experiences with the beings around you, and the world - it draws me in completely. The mark - most certainly - of a truly gifted writer. Thanks again - as always!

robin andrea said...

What is it like to be this shag, sitting in the cold, clear wind and warm sun on an eroded tin roof? I ask a question like this about almost every living thing I see. It's not that I want to see through their eyes (well maybe for just a moment), but I want to see in them the pulse of their lives, their individuality, the sense of their own personal existence. What does their hunger feel like, or their satiation? When I see a cormorant with its wings spread, drying in the sun, I want to know the moment it feels content and folds its sun-warmed wings.

Beautiful photographs, Pete.

Patrick B. said...

Wonderful photos and a words Pete. I really enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Tim: I had a look at your blog; a good start. One thing I felt was missing was any information about you (other than that you're really into gear). Might I suggest a little about where you live and climb; other interests; and, of course, your name (just 'Tim' is fine; but I wouldn't have known unless you'd posted your comment here). Your own photos would also be good to see, provided they're optimised so they load quickly (for those of us with dial-up connections). Looking forward to hearing about your climbing!

KSG: Thanks! — as always :^)

Robin: This strikes me as a question kids often seem fascinated by, and willing to wonder about out loud. Most adults, if they ever wonder about it (I think more do than we think) seldom if ever articulate that wonder. Perhaps they're too self-conscious, or maybe they know it's an impossible question to answer — but answering it isn't the point. It's the wondering that's important. Good to know there are people like you around.

Patrick: Thanks; really pleased you liked it :^)

Lulu said...

Hee hee hee. The shag who spied me. Tee hee.

Brenda Schmidt said...

What lovely imprints!

Mary said...

Blogger ate my first comment. Let’s try again.

This is another illustration, Pete, of how really paying attention expands and enriches life. You took the time, you observed, you noted, you watched. And thanks to your post we all benefit. Beautiful.

I have been admiring your use of black and white photography for some time. Haven’t used it myself yet, but your results are prodding me in that direction! The one in this post is great – I suspect the straight lines have something to do with it.

I was interested to read your exchange with butuki in your previous post. I’m in a similar situation, working at occasional jobs, living minimally. Nice to know that there are several of us around.

Anonymous said...

Glad you got a laugh from it, Lulu :^)

Thanks Brenda!

Mary, thanks. Black and white is a very different medium; it's a different way of seeing. I'm interested you should identify the straight lines in that photo, as straight lines are something I find difficult to work with in photos. For example, I find dragonflies and damselflies difficult to photograph because they're so linear.
I'm sure there are lots of people like us, and it's always encouraging to hear how they/we enjoy life.

Mary said...

Thanks Pete. And I've only just clicked re the title! Very good

DivaJood said...

Kia ora, Pete. I love the image of the jetty at Petone -- the perfect bird in flight -- gorgeous.

Nice blog!

Anonymous said...

Kia ora Divajood, and thanks :^) I just managed to get the gull in the photo, and wonder about how it would have looked if it had been flying in the other direction. To me, it would have said something utterly different.

Zhoen said...

That is one brutally primitive looking bird.

wolf21m said...

Great photos and excellent narrative. Thanks for supporting I and the Bird.

Anonymous said...

Cheers Zhoen :D. Sometimes I do feel as shags are looking at me from a different epoch...

Wolf21m: Thanks! :^)