Brandt’s Cormorant Doesn’t Survive Attempt to Swallow Barred Surfperch

Have you ever taken too big a bite? This Brandt’s cormorant did, presumably, and paid the ultimate price.

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Unfortunate Brandt’s cormorant with a half-swallowed barred surfperch | Photo courtesy Robert LaVine

A group of my friends, and my sis too, decided to spend New Year’s morning with their dogs on off-leash Carmel Beach, California. There, they made this curious discovery in the drift line. The slim neck of the cormorant and the deep body of the surfperch were a mismatch. Apparently, the recurved spines on the dorsal fin of the surfperch prevented a tail-first ejection, turning the mismatch lethal.

The culprit here is the barred surfperch, Amphistichus argenteus. You won’t find many photos of barred surfperch on these pages because they are rare as far north as my home beaches – so rare I’ve never caught or photographed one. This is an adult female. The spines that did the damage aren’t on display in this photo, but the hard rays on the anterior dorsal fin are stiff and sharp.

Female barred Surfperch laying on sand
Barred surfperch, Amphistichus argenteus | Photo courtesy Ken Oda

This isn’t the first Brandt’s cormorant to make a poor food choice. I found this radiograph in a 1969 note in Auk describing a similar situation. The offender was the plainfin midshipman, Porichthys notatus, notable for spiny gill covers they can flare in defense.

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From Morejohn 1969, Auk 86: 555-556.

You can read all about here.

A dead Brandt's Cormorant with a half-swalled male barred surfperch
Brandt’s cormorant, male barred surfperch | Photo courtesy Robert LaVine

I’m no detective and alternative explanations for this sad story exist, but the explanation I’ve laid out is the the most likely, in my opinion. I’m so convinced, I wrote a poem about it.

Greedy Cormorant

Slim Phalacrocorax didn’t think
The big perch nabbed
Had spines to sink
A greedy diver black as ink

Researching this post, I learned of cormorants working the shore break and ospreys diving into the surf to take barred surfperch. I even learned of a rescued brown pelican, in distress due to a midshipman entangled in its throat pouch. Have you encountered cases like these?

I thank Robert LaVine for alerting me to the discovery and sharing the photos. His enthusiasm inspired me to write this account. I also thank Ken Oda for sharing his related observations from the California coast and providing the photo of the barred surfperch. David Leal always helps me with bird identification. I thank him for that and for sharing the story of the pelican and midshipman, which, by the way, had a happy ending.

Note: On December 14, 2019, I posted The Trouble with Surfperch of a Certain Size, an example of a deadly encounter between a double-crested cormorant and a barred surfperch.


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