Cormorants and More, Richardson Bay

Cormorants in San Francisco Bay

Because they are common and widespread, sometimes I take cormorants for granted.  Then one day I found myself living on the San Francisco Bay, in temporary housing, and I witnessed some unique behavior.


In the Bay Area the double-crested cormorant is the prevalent species. They spend their day swimming and flying in search of fish, and can often be seen diving underwater for prey. They are excellent divers, and have webbed feet for fast underwater propulsion.


Wikipedia Double-crested Cormorant


On my first day here, standing on the balcony overlooking the bay, I noticed a very large flock of cormorants down at the water. There were hundreds of the black sea birds, and they were synchronistically flying in the same direction. They swirled together in a great dance, slightly above the water’s surface.


Most of us have observed individual cormorants on land, spreading their wings, drying out. But this enormous flock all swooping together was new to me.

I had many other tasks to contend with, while we sort out the remains of our fire-damaged property, so I was soon off to something else. But throughout the week I continued to notice this phenomenon. I was seeing it almost every day, and always in the early morning.

Cormorants, SF Bay, Streets of San Francisco in background

Cormorants are colonial nesters, and at night they roost in large groups. From the balcony I noticed they have a favorite sea wall, where they congregate. When they take off in the morning, they often do so together.


Then I learned why they fly together:  for better fishing.


Although they do not always flock in groups this large, when it does occur, they form a line. The line of birds, close to the water, follow the fish underwater and chase them. More cormorants opportunistically join the flock, sometimes thousands.


They often fly in a “V” shape and there is a hierarchy to the front line; sometimes there are hundreds, sometimes just a dozen. They surge and swoosh and make abrupt directional changes, always following the fish underwater.


If the fish escape the flying predators, the cormorants quickly disperse.


But if the cormorants are triumphant and succeed in snatching the fish, then there is much splashing.


Ornithological Study on the Cormorant Fishing Activity 


Double-crested Cormorant

I went down to the water one morning this week to photograph the big flocks. I didn’t find the huge flocks, but I watched thousands of cormorants heading out for a day of fishing.


And while I was photographing the cormorants, I spotted a sea lion. I was watching the sea lion, waiting for it to re-surface after a dive, when the most marvelous thing happened.


A whale surfaced right in front of me. It gave the characteristic sigh sound, of breathing air, and breached the water’s surface. I enjoyed one second of seeing the whale’s barnacled back, and then it disappeared. Based on the size and color, and since it is their migration time, I am quite certain it was a gray whale.


These are a few of the riches of Richardson Bay, a marine sanctuary on the northern edge of the San Francisco Bay. I’m going to be here for at least three months, and am looking forward to sharing more with you.


Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Double-crested Cormorants in Richardson Bay, SF Bay. Photo: Richard Hinz



71 thoughts on “Cormorants and More, Richardson Bay

  1. Thanks Jet for the interesting read about the Cormorant. You images are wonderful. Your temporary home setting is going to be adventure. Can’t wait to see what you discover next.

  2. That’s absolutely wonderful, Jet. What a sight! And their behaviour is peculiar. Und fun! Sounds and looks like you have picked a lovely spot for the time being.
    Isn’t it weird, that a bird has to dry up their wings like the cormorants do? In North Norfolk I can watch for them ever so long. This sit in groups of 2-3-4 and dry their wings, fly odd, catch a fish and then they land to dry up again.
    Wishing you and Athena a happy weekend!

    • I really like hearing about the cormorants in north Norfolk, Dina. There are many theories at present about the cormorant wing-drying, it is largely that the cormorant species does not have sufficient waterproofing oil (like most birds do), so they dry out their wings instead. always a joy to hear from you and the Fab Four.

  3. You take my breath away again, Jet! Even though I didn’t see the whale, I can imagine your own intake of breath at the unexpected sighting. But those cormorant too . . . oh yes! I love these birds and have never seen them in such numbers. I particularly love the first and last shots you have posted of them – Athena, as always, has does a great job of capturing images to go with your text.

    • What a joy to receive your comment, Alastair. I am thrilled to share these experiences with you, and grateful that you get the whole picture. That whale did indeed take my breath away. I quickly looked around to see if anyone else saw it. But there were only two individuals nearby; a woman who was engaged in baby-talk with her dog, and a man with his head bent down, deeply involved in his phone. I thought, I guess that whale was here to see me. It really made my day. Thank you so much, my friend, always great to connect with you.

  4. I’ve never seen a large group of cormorants like that, Jet, but we have some around here and I love to watch them. It’s amazing to me how long they can stay underwater. I counted once and it’s 20-30 seconds, then they pop up somewhere completely different from where they went under. 🙂


  5. Looks like your new accommodations are located near a treasure trove of wildlife – very happy you’re going to enjoy some local adventures as you wait to return to your mountain.
    Interesting flock behaviour by the cormorants, and what a sight to see them in such large numbers. Spotting the whale and hearing it sigh must have made your morning!
    Thanks, Jet – enjoy your weekend!

    • Our new accommodations are in one of the most beautiful places in the whole Bay Area. We had to work hard to find this place and I was really sweatin’ it. The insurance company encourages people to stay at the Extended Stay America hotel chain on the freeway, but if you do the hunting and find a place yourself, they will reimburse. So we found a great place and in between all the tasks, and journeys to our mountain to oversee repairs and do cleanup, we have great walks and enjoy marine wildlife. You would’ve liked the whale sighting, PC, and I am glad to have shared it with you. You, too, enjoy your weekend.

    • I was absolutely thrilled, Bertie! It was pretty close to shore and in a shallow bay, so I did not expect it at all. And if I would not have been staring right at the spot, waiting for the sea lion to surface, I would not have seen it. Thanks so much for your visit, I hope you are doing well in Amsterdam.

  6. How exciting….this is one of the unexpected benefits of going through what you are ……thank you so much for sharing this with us. I have of course been thinking about you, and now with the fires raging in southern california…it must feel very strange. Stay well and continue to enjoy this fabulous show of Mother Nature. Janet 🙂

    • How wonderful to receive your visit, Janet, it is always such a pleasure. And you’re right, there are unexpected benefits, and when they pop up, I am right on it. The southern Cal fires are strange for us, yes, we have friends in Ventura who had to evacuate, the smoke from those fires has left a heavy pall of smog in the air even being 500 miles away. And some of the people providing services to our area are from southern Cal, and have had to go back down there, leaving us without service. But mostly, it’s the fresh horror of knowing what they are going through that hits home. I so hope it gets resolved soon down there. Crazy times. A perfect joy to “see” you today, my friend.

  7. Beautiful capture of Cormorants. I have seen then in gulf coast and by lakes here. They are very fast in capturing fish. Thank you for the interesting info, Jet.

  8. Jet I think it is especially amazing that when you went down to the water a whale appeared for you. Perhaps Mother Nature felt it just was a bit of a boost for you as you continue to work through the details of your loss and recovery. What a sight it must have been. The birds alone in formation, or the sea lion too, but the whale really takes the cake, or the fish as it may be. Wishing you and Athena a good week.

    • That whale was really special to see, Sue, so true. No one in the vicinity had witnessed it, and I just felt like it was there to give me a little wink of whale joy. I have been on so many whale watching tours over the years, I knew the sound and the sight without a doubt, and that made it special too. Thanks so much, dear Sue, for your continued interest and friendship.

  9. great information-when they stop here in the midwest they must be really lonely as we see them in small groups of a half dozen or so. Great observation and thanks for sharing

    • That’s how I am accustomed to seeing the cormorants, too, Bill — in small groups. So it’s been fun watching and learning about this fishing behavior they have. Thank you, as always, for your visit today.

    • One year I spent Thanksgiving at Lafayette reservoir, and that is a happenin’ place in terms of wildlife. I bet you get quite a few birds there. The breaching whale was a total thrill, and yes, I took it as a sign of better days ahead. Have a fun weekend, Jan.

  10. An interesting observation of these birds, Jet. How lovely to watch their fishing activities… and thanks for sharing these photos and writing with us! Have a good weekend and enjoy your time with friends. 🙂

    • It has been lovely to watch the cormorants fishing activities, Iris. At first I didn’t even know the cormorants were fishing, so it’s been a great time of learning, too. Always a joy to hear from you, thank you, Iris.

  11. Wow Jet, the flocking must be wonderful to see – cormorants are quite common here and I love to see their low flight across the water, but I’ve never seen anything like this. And what a lovely surprise to see the whale, that must have felt like a gift 🙂

    • I take my morning walks down by the waterside, as often as possible, Andrea, and every time there is some gift for me there. Yes, the whale surprise did really feel like a gift. Add flocking cormorants and diving sea lions and it was a bonanza. Thank you so much for stopping by, I always appreciate your insight, my friend.

  12. What a thrill… flocks of synchronized cormorants, a sea lion and a whale. You find beauty, joy and a story wherever you go, Jet! Thanks for sharing.

  13. I’ve always enjoyed watching cormorants and it must have been wonderful to watch hundreds fly. I’ve only seen a small group flying together as they fought amongst themselves for the perfect positioning in a tree. I can’t imagine combining that experience with sea lions and whales, Thanks for sharing this informative post and wonderful photos by you and Athena! I’m glad to hear you won’t have to move around for the next three months and looking forward to more photos from your balcony over the bay!

  14. Interesting post,great your Cormorant observations,dear Jet!Impressed by their fishing techniques,their dives and how the chase fish underwater.Happy to see you keep posting despite the recent fire-adventure you have experienced;at least you’re safe at the place you are staying now,I am so upset again after seeing the new California fires … Take care dear friend.All the best to you & Athena 🙂

    • Dear Doda, it is always a delight when you come to visit, thank you. Our days in this post-fire period have been very chaotic with many ups and downs as we continue interacting with companies and crews, rules and methods, all of which I had never before had any experience with. Much of it is nonsensical and illogical, frustrating. So the walks down by the water, and the writing of my weekly post and connecting with my blogging friends have been soothing activities that I work really hard to make room for in my new life. I am so happy I had a chance to connect with you today, my friend, thank you.

      • Thank you for your kindness and your appreciation,dear Jet.I can really understand what you have been through after the unexpected wild fires in your place that changed your life overnight.You were always at one with nature,but right now it’s a real resort for you.Enjoy the blessings of nature in all her expressions:)

  15. Love that last image especially. Interesting behavior, thanks for sharing your observations and research here. Nature is endlessly fascinating, isn’t it? Looking forward to your future posts.

    • Yes, I, too, find nature endlessly fascinating, Eliza. Even when the fires came blazing through our mountain; afterwards, looking at the curious patterns of where the winds commanded the fires, what they burned and what they didn’t touch, it is interesting, so unpredictable, and so much bigger than us. I always enjoy what you bring to your readers of the beauties and creativity in the garden, Eliza.

  16. Cormorants are excellent swimmers. They are gregarious birds not only with their own species but also others. Their feathers get water logged creating to much drag for flying. Different to other birds which have glands that make their feathers impermeable. they proceed to extend their wings to dry. I’ve seen cormorants in many places, they are quite numerous. Thank you for your great post my friend. We got 6 inches of snow today! Can you believe that…in Georgia! 🙂

    • I enjoyed your cormorant contribution, HJ. They really are such wonderful birds, we are so lucky to have them all over this planet. I am glad you enjoyed the post. And so surprised to hear you got that much snow in Georgia! I know there are some very lucky birds there who are getting fed and pampered in spite of the snow conditions. 😀 My thanks to you, my friend–

      • It didn’t end there at 6″…it went to 12″ when snowed overnight. I’ll post some photos on Tuesday.

  17. I’ve seen lots of cormorants out here, but never witnessed or noticed the sort of behavior you describe. It seems as though there were more of them near the previous house, but I was farther from spots where they hung out. Now that I’ve moved a bit south and closer to the beach and river, I don’t seem to be seeing as many. But I’ll be keeping a lookout just in case.

    Seeing a whale that close had to take your breath away I would think. We spot them quite often traveling up and down the coast. The closest I’ve been to one was at a pullout off the highway where I spotted one pretty close to shore. Easiest way to spot them when driving along the coast is to see the folks standing around with binoculars and pointing! 😀

    • I so enjoyed your comment and visit, Gunta, thank you. I, too, have seen lots of whales by observing the arm-pointing folks with binoculars. And of course the spouts. I don’t scan a single ocean landscape without scanning for whale spouts, even if it’s off-season. So oh yes, what a thrill, to be looking for a sea lion and receive the gift of a whale! I am happy for you that your new house has been a great source of adventures for you and your husband. Have fun, Gunta, and thanks for stopping by.

    • Thanks very much, Lloyd, great to have you stop by. We are both doing fine, thanks for asking. I stopped at your blog recently but when I saw there were spoiler alerts I didn’t read it, but I was happy to see you were published and that you have been productive and successful.

      • Thanks Jet, yes you got to avoid spoilers. I have a friend and he point blank won’t read any of reviews of films he hasn’t seen. Even the ones that are supposed to be spoiler free. Haha. Thank you for stoping by and glad to hear you’re doing okay.

  18. Beautiful and informative post, Jet. I see Double Crested Cormorants here on a regular basis, the sailing center is their favorite spot to congregate, but I have never seen so many working together at one time!

    • Good to know your experience with the double-crested cormorants, Helen. Now if you ever see them in a large flock, you’ll know why. Always a treat to have you stop by, my friend, your strength inspires me.

  19. Enjoyed your post about cormorants. The last image is absolutely magnificent, I have never seen so many cormorants in flight. It is amazing that you caught a glimpse of a grey whale. I have never seen a whale 🙂

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