COLEHARBOR - The birds could be seen swirling above the small island from several hundred yards away as the large pontoon turned with the waves. Aboard were more than a dozen interested visitors destined for "Cormorant Colony Island" on the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge. Several guests viewed the distant spectacle through binoculars as the pontoon continued to move toward the island.
As the craft approached the island, hundreds of double-crested cormorants and ring-billed gulls could be seen swimming in the water while many more circled overhead. The noise level increased, too, as the tour entered an area otherwise restricted to human visitation.
Within minutes the pontoon came to a stop and the visitors stepped onto the island. They discovered immediately that there were nests, eggs and young cormorants all around them. Each step had to be taken with care.
"I think folks got a unique look at what a nesting colony is all about," said Jackie Jacobson, Audubon NWR visitor services manager. "I think people don't realize how unique things can be and there's just not many opportunities for a person to get out and really get that close."
Unique indeed. Visitors walked carefully among the many nests on the island. Hundreds of photographs were taken. Some of the nests contained eggs that were either due to hatch soon or had been abandoned. The age of the cormorants ranged from the recently hatched to those about to enter the water for the first time. Jacobson estimated the largest of the young cormorants to be about 1 month old.
Much of the island, particularly near the crest, was barren with the exception of crude nests built by cormorants of sticks and dry reeds. Partially eaten salamanders and minnows could be seen strewn about the island. Cormorants feed their young through regurgitation.
William Burt, Old Lyme, Conn., takes a photograph of young cormorants on an island within Audubon National Wildlife Refuge. Cormorants in the colony were at various stages of growth.
Among those carefully framing photographs of cormorants still on the nest was William Burt of Old Lye, Conn. Burt is touring several places in North Dakota and Saskatchewan, camera in hand.
"This was great. Absolutely great," said Burt after completing the island tour. "I'm working on a project involving the photography of young birds, especially the coastal species that leave the nest soon after they hatch. They make good photographs."
Hundreds of cormorants that were old enough to walk away from their nests but not yet ready to enter the water gathered in large numbers at the edges of the island. At least in terms of numbers and appearance, they brought to mind images of penguins gathering near the sea. It was an unusual site, particularly for North Dakota.
Volunteering at Audubon NWR
Audubon Refuge Partners Inc. is a group of volunteers who form an independent, non-profit corporation dedicated to providing assistance and support to the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The group focuses on providing quality wildlife and habitat-oriented environmental education, interpretation and recreational experiences which are compatible with the goals of the Complex.
"I had no idea that something like that was here," said Bill Nieland, Coleharbor. "I went on the duck island trip last week but this was more interesting and, really, far more than I anticipated. The population, the concentration, being that close and interacting with the wildlife. It was a great time."
Nieland's reaction was common among those who participated in the tour. The memories will be long lasting.
"We offer these tours to the public so folks get an opportunity to see things that they wouldn't normally get an up close look at," said Jacobean. "It also helps garner interest in the refuge. As people start to learn a little bit more they start to care a little bit more about the different species. I think it just gives them a new look as to what the refuge is all about."
Audubon's nesting islands are utilized by 11 species of ducks and hundreds of pairs of Canada geese. The cormorants keep their small island to themselves, along with a number of ring-billed gulls. There is room for all on the refuge.
"It was very cool. Very nice to see," said Mary Ellen Parker, Washburn, and a member of the island tour. "I loved doing it. I belong to the volunteer friends of Audubon Refuge and this was the first opportunity I had to do it. I wanted to find out more about what's going on here. It was a very enjoyable trip. Loved it."
Last Wednesday's tour was the final one of the season to Audubon's islands. However, points out Jacobson, that doesn't mean people shouldn't consider visiting Audubon NWR in the coming days.
"We have a one-mile nature hike, and it is a great time to see wild flowers and native grasses," said Jacobson. "There's also an eight-mile-long Auto Tour Route that people can drive. It is kind of prime time now for the young birds to be out and finding shelter."
Weekend visitors to Audubon NWR are reminded that the new visitor's center will remain open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday through August. A complete list of upcoming activities at Audubon NWR can be found on their website at (www.fws.gov/audubon).