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Dedicated to Henry Beston's literary classic and the
spirit of life on the Great Outer Beach of Cape Cod

A cormorant's adventure

BY DON WILDING / July 13, 2001

Earlier today, I decided to embark on another new adventure on one of my day trips to Cape Cod -- take a hike north from Marconi Beach in Wellfleet.

Trips to Eastham, Truro and Provincetown have all been taken and those beaches covered by yours truly over the last few years, but here in Wellfleet, I was basically breaking new ground.

It wouldn't be the only new adventure of the day. Over the next couple of hours, I would get to know another one of God's creatures that I had only heard about and seen from a distance -- the cormorant.

Double crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)
(Editor's note: No, this isn't 'Marconi the Cormorant,' just a reasonable facsimile)

As author Robert Finch has pointed out, cormorants are those black birds perched on the wires over the pond as you approach the Orleans rotary on Route 6 eastbound.

I now know that I've seen this member of the pelican order countless times before, swimming with their hooked beaks pointed in a proud and noble upward angle while taking an occasional dive below the surface to nab a quick seafood dinner.

My initial impression was that it looked like some sort of twisted seagull/magpie hybrid on steroids, with a hook-like bill that resembled a weapon right out of a Play Station video game, using it to rip the heads of gillman intruders in some dark, ancient cave.

I arrived at Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, and quickly made my way north, seeing how far I would get. Since my back has started to feel much older than its 41 years, I decided that I would turn around at LeCount Hollow, the next beach up the shoreline, and make my way back. Clouds were also starting to pour in after hours of sunshine, meaning foul weather might also be the way (that never did materialize, sparing me yet another adventure).

On the way back, not far from the famous Marconi Station, I came across a black feathered fellow sitting in the sand, with the incoming surf just starting to brush him. He was a bit smaller than the many gulls that were starting to circle about him, and it was easy to see that he wasn't as mobile as seabirds should be.

I went in for a closer look. The gulls scattered, looking for another member of nature to kick around. The black bird was probably relieved that his feathered antagonists were gone, but what in the name of John J. Audubon was this oversized hulk going to do with him?

The bird was injured -- one of his legs was broken and hanging lifelessly -- and he wasn't taking very kindly to my advances. Here I was, right between LeCount Hollow and Marconi Beaches, and not another soul within several hundred yards. Even if I could catch him and keep him under control, how would I get him back to my car, and contain him until I could get to one of the local bird sanctuaries? I thought about how one of my friends, Kate Alpert of Eastham, had helped to rescue a couple of thick-billed murres from Coast Guard Beach in Eastham after an early March nor'easter clobbered Cape Cod.

After taking about five seconds to figure out that I needed to do something to save this guy, I threw one of the towels from backpack around the bird, who was starting to make limping tracks toward the surf. His long neck was darting about wildly, catching a small piece of my left index knuckle. He only clipped it, but the thoughts of what he could do with a straight-on clamp with that beak made me a little concerned that I didn't have a first aid kit handy.

The one towel wasn't going to be enough. I emptied the large part of my backpack, took the wrapped part of his body (including his wings) and put him inside the pack, with his head sticking out. With his long neck sticking out, he was striking much like a snake that "The Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin would be holding. I even found myself trying to comfort the bird, saying "you're all right" much like Irwin would. The only difference is that I didn't have an Australian accent (my New England-ized Jersey accent would have to do), and didn't follow it with the word "mate."

After wrapping yet another towel around my newly-acquired package, off I went down the beach. I thought about trying to contain his sharp beak with my Orleans Cardinals baseball cap, but there was no way that the Redbird was going to contain this bird.

Along the way, I figured that this fellow needed a name. "Marconi," I thought to myself, and dubbed him with the name of the beach and the famous transmitting station that connected us with Europe a century earlier.

Then, what to my wandering eyes should appear, but a Cape Cod National Seashore park ranger on a four-wheel beach buggy, checking out the enclosed piping plover nesting areas at the base of the bluffs.

I moved up past the high tide level, and waved him over to me. "Can you help me out with this guy?" I said, showing him my injured and hap-hazardly wrapped-up friend.

The ranger's name was David LaMere. I asked him what kind of bird I was carrying. After scanning him over, LaMere had an answer. "It's a cormorant," he said. That night, I looked it up in a field guide, and there he was -- a double crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus). Black feathers, orange throat, the whole deal.

I acknowldeged that "Marconi the Cormorant" had nipped me earlier. "Yeah, those things have taken a few chunks out of me," LaMere concurred.

We exchanged a few more thoughts on the situation, then tried to figure out a way out. There was no way to drive that vehicle and keep Marconi under control. His vehicle also wouldn't be considered "roomy," especially for a 270-pound hiker.

"I can't really take him or you on here, but I can radio for a truck," LaMere said. "What I can do is have them come down to the Marconi entrance."

"They can't come out on the beach, huh?" I said, sort of realizing what the answer would be.

LaMere shook his head. "The only entrances for trucks are down at Coast Guard (in Eastham) and Ballston Beach (in Truro)," he said. "I'll take whatever else you have with you on this, but you'll have to walk him down there. The truck will be waiting up there."

Off we both went, and soon I was carting this critter past curious beachgoers, who were probably wondering what my function in life was. All the while, Marconi was trying to position his long neck so that he could get a good shot at me with that jagged little beak of his.

LaMere was waiting for me at the stairway at the base of the bluff at Marconi Beach, and carried the bird and all the wrappings I had provided up the stairs.

"I'll give these back to you as soon as I get him in the truck," LaMere said. "We've got a cage for him in there. We have a wildlife place to take injured birds to."

"OK, good," I replied. "My keys and my watch are in that backpack in a side pocket, but I don't dare try to get them out with him in there."

By this time, the sweat was pouring off me, and my arm and shoulder muscles were sore. Thankfully, the bottle of spring water that I was carting along earlier was on LaMere's buggy. I guzzled down the now-lukewarm water as I was climbing the bluff stairs, taking heavy breaths in between gulps.

LaMere and his partner unloaded Marconi into the truck, and assured me that he was going to the Mass. Audubon Sanctuary "just across the street" on Route 6.

As I trucked across the parking lot to my car, relieved that this unexpected mission was finally over, I heard a mother and her little son, carting all their beach gear to the car, behind me. "You did such a good job carrying all that stuff!" she said to her boy.

I laughed quietly to myself. I'm sure Junior did a wonderful job hauling his cargo, and no doubt it was a big moment in his young life, especially since Mommy was so proud of him. However, it's not quite the same as hauling a less than cooperative cormorant down a mile of sandy beach.

That's an adventure that I'm not going to forget about for quite some time.


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