Spain’s only record of the Pygmy Cormorant (Microcarbo pygmaeus) is from a single cormorant collected in Catalunya in 1855, with no known records since. The large numbers of Pygmy Cormorants in Italy (particularly in the Po Delta in Northern Italy), their recent “overflow” trend to establish new satellite colonies (e.g. Neusiedlersee in Eastern Austria), Europe-wide protection and conservation efforts seems to bode well for this enigmatic little fisher. And I could well imagine that they are bound to turn up in Spain again; potentially even establishing colonies in places like the Delta del Ebro.
But a recent article in Dutch Birding entitled “Reed Cormorant collected in Catalunya, Spain, in c. 1855” has put this lone record in a rather different light. The authors initially point out the almost obvious plumage and structural differences between the two species – bill shape, loral patterning and the patterning of the wing coverts.
Having read the article earlier this year, I set about trying to get a few photos of the Reed Cormorants (Microcarbo africanus) while I was in South Africa last month; and to have a closer look at them. Funny, in my mind’s eye I had them as being rather a plain, uniform black with no greatly notable features other than being small, slender and black. Pretty much like our Pygmy Cormorants. But the reality (and the photos) surprised me. The adults really are beautiful with a strikingly scarlet eye, a yellow bill, and wonderful white snow-flakes on their wings.
Young juvenile Reed Cormorants are typically duller; with a dark eye (changing to red at a fairly young age, though), darker bill, and lighter belly and breast. While the snowflaked wing coverts are not as dramatic, they always show the typical black tips to the feathers.
Found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the Reed Cormorant is locally common at fish-rich inland fresh-water pools, typically avoiding the coastline apart from estuaries. The authors of the Dutch Birding article state that the closest known breeding colony of Reed Cormorants to Spain is at Banc d’Arguin in Mauritania. This “new” record makes it the first and only known record of the Reed Cormorant in Europe.