Category Archives: b) Gannets to Cormorants

Japanese Cormorant genes in Europe?


Eh what? A third taxon has been mooted, suggested, put forward for NW Europe. It is genetically separate from carbo and sinensis and appears more closely related to the Japanese or Temminck’s Cormorant Phalocrocorax capillatus. It’s not ‘news’ though it managed to stay off my radar. Good ol’ Brett R. stirred the pot as we sat seawatching at Flamborough. Richard Millington as ever has been very helpfully added more detail. The Sound Approach crew mention it in this book. ( I wonder what norvegicus might sound like?).

The seminal paper is:

Marion & Le Gentil (2006): Ecological segregation and population structuring of the Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo in Europe, in relation to the recent introgression of continental and marine subspecies.
Cormorant at Gullfest- Vardo, Varanger, April 2012. It seems probable that the majority of Cormorants here will be 'norvegicus' more closely related to Japanese Cormorants than the other European taxa- carbo and sinensis.

Cormorant at Gullfest- Vardo, Varanger, April 2012. It seems probable that the majority of Cormorants here will be ‘norvegicus’ more closely related to Japanese Cormorants than the other European taxa- carbo and sinensis.

In a rather fascinating nutshell, whilst exploring the genetic makeup of Cormorants, Marion and Le Gentil discovered that a proportion of the population, especially in Arctic Norway appeared more closely  related to the Japanese or Temminck’s Cormorant.

They have named these birds, subspecies nova: norvegicus, explaining:

“…usual P. c. carbo formed two coastal populations, the real P. c. carbo ‘‘C’’ mainly in the western part of the range (United Kingdom, coastal France), and also in Norway and Sardinia, and ‘‘N’’, branched to the Japanese Cormorant P. capillatus and probably isolated by glaciations, mainly present in the Nordic range (Norway, but also on the coasts from Sweden to Brittany), we named P. c. norvegicus.”

 “We show the existence of a third group, N, an unexpected new subspecies (we propose to name P. c. norvegicus), mainly present in Norway and Brittany but also in Sweden, Denmark and The Netherlands, all regions near the sea (Fig.4). It is genetically separated from the Western population Cand appears more related to population S … and…to P. capillatus [Japanese Cormorant] ….”

Varanger is near the north-eastern end of the range of old ‘carbo’. It is by extrapolation from the Marion & Le Gentil paper likely to consist of 90% plus norvegicus. Is also represents the Cormorants nearest to the Northeast Passage and the Asian Pacific Rim where Japanese Cormorants could have colonised from.

I wondered if the genes of Japanese Cormorant in norvegicus translate to phenotypic characters. Japanese Cormorants have a carbo-shaped gular pouch angles and in a brief survey seem to have a higher proportion of white filoplumed birds than ‘western’ carbo in breeding dress  and more extensive white area behind the bare facial skin. The white filoplumes have a curious look in many Japanese Cormorants, tending to look longer and yet sparser in number, ‘wispy’.

So I dug out my few photos of cormorants in Varanger. Hmmm… interestingly they all had some white filoplumes and some seemed to have more white in the facial pattern than I expect for typical carbo.

It’s very preliminary, but rather fascinating 🙂

Varanger Cormorants (perhaps norvegicus) in March 2012 at Gullfest. 

Especially check out the amount of white in the head pattern. Not all had this much white. It would be interesting to see other photos of Cormorants from Varanger. Tormod Amundsen and Anders Mæland are already on the case.

cormy 5 vadso april 2012 cormy 4 vadso april 2012 cormy 3 vadso april 2012

and while exploring the subject, on my local patch:

Cormorants at Flamborough in early January 2015


Above two photos. An interesting ‘carbo-jawed’ individual with some white filoplumes in early January. A norvegicus candidate?


Above. A classic adult sinensis.

carbo boom leucistic cormorant s landing 5th jan 15Above: A rather stunning carbo-type Cormorant with either ‘leucism’ or ‘progressive greying’ (thanks Brett!)


African Cormorant

African Cormorant in Belgium?

Standing out like the proverbial ‘sore thumb’ in the NW Europe this juvenile Cormorant is white from just below the dark crown to its undertail coverts. Peter Adriaens, Nieuwpoort,  Belgian Coast, 8 August 2010.


Quite fascinating was my response on receiving a set of photos 3 days ago from well-know Belgium birder Peter Adriaens with the big Q. Could this be an African ‘White-breasted’ Cormorant?  There are 2 forms of Great Cormorant in Africa- maroccanus (Hartert, 1906), of coastal north-west Africa and lucidus (Lichtenstein, 1823), of coastal west and South Africa and inland East Africa. I know lucidus from East Africa and many British birders will be familiar with maroccanus from Morocco. I have not knowingly seen a bird like this in the UK. I am wondering if anyone else has.

Here are some of my  questions / observations which were also enhanced by conversation with Richard Millington (who knows his Cormys!) :

In the photos (note to self: always be aware when interpreting photos!) the bird looks more juvenile than 1st summer with no moult contrast in the rectrices and very extensive pale tipping over brownish washed wing coverts and pale tipped remiges. It appears to have the classic pointed pale tipped tertials of juveniles versus the rounded dark-fringed tertials of 2nd calendar year birds.

There does seem to be some moult in the wing coverts- which suggests it is an ‘older’ juvenile i.e. perhaps one that has hatched in warmer climes with mid-winter breeding strategy  – a bird say abroad 6-9 months old? (though I don’t know enough about breeding times of maroccanus/ lucidus). Peter pointed out that  BWP says nothing about the replacement of wing coverts in post-juvenile moult of sinensis. Only head, neck, upper mantle, part of breast and belly are moulted. Further more in a preliminary review of photographs of juvenile sinensis from July – October none seem to show any wing covert moult.

The white on the underparts most especially in face pattern does seem very pro moroccanus/ lucidus– bit too extreme even for worn 1st summer sinensis.

As for vagrancy- the North African birds seem eminently likely to occur, occasionally with birds from the English channel regions which regularly winter in southern Spain (and perhaps some  overlapping in winter range into North Africa maroccanus territory). It would not be that surprising to find new youngster carried north with returning migrants would it?

At the moment, tome, the photos appear to show a candidate maroccanus/ lucidus with some questions and clearly more to learn. Its one of those – lets explore this subject and see where it leads! There seems to be only limited data on the appearance and moult timing of ‘African’ juveniles. Maybe the bird will turn up in the southern UK this autumn as Continental sinensis from the low countries disperse out north and west?

Other comments made by Peter as least interesting, in regard to maroccanus/ lucidus:

*the greater coverts, particularly the outer ones, have more prominent pale tips than in most juvenile sinensis

*the median and lesser coverts show extensive pale edges, in flight creating a bit of a pale wing panel set off against mostly dark greater coverts – quite Shag-like, actually, and unlike the average sinensis

*the lower scapulars appear quite pale from most angles

The resemblance to this juvenile lucidus from South Africa seems unreal:

This bird is even moulting its median coverts!