Not the common cormorant …

The common cormorant (or shag)
Lays eggs inside a paper bag …

So wrote Christopher Isherwood. Of course, without getting into the differences of taxonomic opinion regarding the Phalacrocoracidae, in common usage in the UK, the species that bear these names are distinct birds. A cormorant is not shag, and a shag is not a cormorant. Common or otherwise.

It does get confusing with birds elsewhere in the world that were called shags because they had crests like our shag, but are actually cormorants with a crest (or other such misleading features). If Isherwood had been antipodean, he might have been forgiven, but in UK waters, his nonsense poetry was just that … nonsense.

Regarding their being common, it is interesting to note that although cormorants are far more often seen from our shores, shags are actually more numerous in our waters. Cormorants are quite fond of fishing in our harbours and standing on rocks near to our busy beaches and coastal paths, but shags rarely frequent such places.

So it was a little bit of a surprise to see one standing on fishing nets in Pittenweem harbour today. Maybe it was seeking shelter from the rough seas and strong wintery blasts of the latest beast from the east. Or maybe it was looking for a paper bag.

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