Birders throughout Utah are enjoying a rare influx of neo-tropic cormorants. This bird is classified as accidental for Utah. Accidental means that it is not expected and is out of its normal range with few sighting records. Richard Young made the first sighting in April of 2009 in Winchester Park in Murray.
Young saw a neo-tropic again this April, along with Cory and Jessica Stokes at the Sandy fishing pond. More neo-tropic cormorants were seen in May by Carol Gwinn and Deedee O'Brien at the Millrace Pond in Salt Lake County.
Although it is too early to say whether the neo-tropic cormorant is expanding its range, more than five sightings in recent months make it worth keeping an alert eye on the birds.
Normally, this water bird is usually seen along the Mexican border and south into Central America.
The neo-tropic cormorant is a small slender cormorant with a long tail. It is smaller than the native double-crested cormorant that is a common summer resident in Utah. It has a yellow-brown throat patch that is bordered in white in breeding plumage. Its mandible is long and hooked. There are white tufts on the sides of the head during breeding season. The body is dark overall, brownish upper parts that are scaled in black with a black underbody. They are 23-29 inches long with a wingspan of 40 inches. Weight is an average of 2.8 pounds.
Like other cormorants, its eyes are adapted for underwater use, as well as aerial vision. It dives and swims after fish. They will also eat amphibians and crustaceans. Neo-tropic cormorants will often hunt cooperatively. They will beat the waters surface with their wings confusing fish into panic dashes toward other awaiting cormorants.
Unlike ducks that have an oil gland to keeps its feathers waterproof, the cormorant must perch out of the water to dry its feathers. They are often seen holding their wings and tail open in a spread eagle fashion as they bask and dry out.
Neo-tropic cormorants are monogamous and a colonial nester. The nest is made of sticks and lined with grass. Both sexes will incubate 2-6 chalky bluish eggs for 25-30 days. Altricial (born with eyes closed, naked and helpless) young are fed by both parents. The young will fledge within 4 to 5 weeks and can dive and swim at 8 weeks.
Bill Fenimore is owner of the Layton Wild Bird Center (www.wildbird.com/layton), author of Backyard Birds of Utah and a member of the Utah Wildlife Board.