Counting Cormorants

“Call me when you’re finished,” the Tres Rios employee offered as he closed and locked the gate behind us at the Tres Rios Wetlands, “and I’ll come let you out.”  As the gate closed behind us, we entered a birder’s paradise.For the next four hours, we would be locked away from civilization, driving around some of the most beautiful ponds we’d seen in Arizona.

Volunteering for AZ Game & Fish

Volunteering for Arizona Game & Fish was on our to-do list when we finally bought a residence where we would winter near Phoenix. When we met with Jamie Lyons, Volunteer Program Administrator, Support Services Division, to inquire about opportunities, she indicated that research might fit us best. And at that moment, the research project in progress involved monitoring cormorant populations and activity in the metro area. While we are not birders, we were excited to become involved with this research project, and Jamie put us in touch with the project leader, Larisa Harding.

“The results of this study,” said Larisa, “are primarily to provide empirical data (rather than just anecdotal evidence) about cormorant numbers and distribution across the state, as well as to see if there’s a particular size class or shape of fish the birds are eating.” Because Arizona Game & Fish hears from anglers about “hundreds of birds” eating fish, as well as the birds eating all the fish within a day of stocking, they are collecting quantitative data to substantiate or refute anecdotal reports.

“The Department doesn’t have any direct authority or jurisdiction to manage the cormorants because they’re federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” says Larisa, “but like many other states, the birds in Arizona are causing great concern because of their increasing numbers and distributions.They impact our community fishing programs, but they also can have devastating effects on our native (and often highly endangered) fish. In the end, we need empirical data both to manage fishing resources appropriately or to make any case to the Feds for management of the cormorants.”

Practice Observations

Because observation dates were scheduled quarterly, the only date left that we could become involved with before the project ended was a Saturday in March. However, Larisa encouraged us to head to one or more of three observation sites any time we wanted to practice recording the information and to gather extra data for the venture.

Our first “test” site was Glendale Ponds, a barren, treeless area which awed us as we entered, not because of its unattractive terrain, but because of the great numbers of birds and bird species. Dead and partially-eaten fish dotted the dikes that separated the ponds; and as we walked along these dikes, a coyote trotted by, seemingly unperturbed by our presence. A short distance ahead, a bald eagle feasted on the remains of a dead fish. Shore birds in the shallow water walked on stilt legs as they continued their search for a meal, while white pelicans floated lazily nearby.

Chuck scoping area

In the distance I spotted a row of ducks lining the bank of a far pond. Raising the binoculars, I recognized the huge flock as Northern Shovelers. “Good grief!” I exclaimed. “I’ve never seen so many Northern Shovelers!” Glassing around, I lost count of the numbers of different species, most of which I could not identify. “I can see why people enjoy birding,” I said. “I could almost become a birder myself!”

Finally, we spotted a group of cormorants on shore, wings spread to air dry. Another cormorant swam nearby, diving occasionally in pursuit of a fish. And we began recording data.

The second site we visited a couple weeks later was well attended by the public, and many birders roamed with binoculars and cameras. Unlike Glendale Ponds, Gilbert Riparian Preserve not only attracted many birds, but it also attracted people by its beauty. Trees shaded the walkways that harbored occasional benches to encourage visitors to rest and observe wildlife.  Multiple inlets merged with observation points; and each time we changed locales to search for cormorants, we couldn’t help but lose ourselves amongst the plethora of birds and bird species.

Quarterly Count

Finally, the day of the quarterly count arrived. By now we had some experience in recording data and distinguishing between Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants. We felt prepared to join other volunteers who dispersed to a variety of sites across Arizona and within the Phoenix metro area to document cormorant activity.


Cormorant near pond

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Cormorant on shore


As the gate locked behind us at Tres Rios Wetlands and we realized we had entered a birder’s paradise, we nearly forgot our mission that allowed us access to this section of the wetlands that was closed to the public. The cacophony of bird calls assaulted our ears like a schoolyard at recess! A large flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds swooped by, screeching an ugly tune that contrasted to their beautiful bodies. Redwing Blackbirds chortled, ducks quacked, doves cooed, coots yelped, and a Great Blue Heron flew low, uttering a raspy racket that drew our attention. A turtle slid from its log perch and disappeared into the water.

In a distant tree, white objects that appeared as plastic shopping bags to the naked eye turned into white egrets when I raised my binoculars. Several large dark objects among them then came into view, as well. “Here are some cormorants!” I hollered over to Chuck. Work had begun!

Working with Game & Fish

We were thrilled to be involved with the cormorant project, and we’re looking forward to working more with Arizona Game & Fish, possibly next time with reptile research, as Larisa mentioned she would pass our names along to the reptile project leader. While that’s more along the lines of our interests, we would not turn down another opportunity to check out the birds!

4 thoughts on “Counting Cormorants”

  1. I enjoyed reading about your new volunteer opportunity with Arizona Game and Fish. I know you will enjoy and the organization is fortunate to have your skills.

    • Thanks Jeanne! We could have used your avian expertise on some of our studies! It’s a whole new subject for us to explore! Take care and enjoy your guided tours with Captain Marty!!


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