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Unusual pied shag encounter

Posted: Sun Sep 22, 2019 7:54 pm
by Raewyn
We just did a nearly two week stint at Spirits Bay. I counted 20 pied shags in the two usual nest trees, one of which is over the small lagoon. As I was walking to the beach one day, I saw what I first thought was just a family feeding, albeit in an unusual place, and started taking photos as I walked closer. The photo below was before I realised all was not as it seemed. It's still from some distance away and is cropped.

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In actual fact what was happening was that the juvenile bird's head was totally stuck in the parent's throat and the adult was struggling in the water trying to free itself. The other two juv's were responding as though it was feeding time and rather getting in the way. The adult that was stuck was stretching its wings out in the water and appeared to be trying to get leverage, but was just getting tired and waterlogged. When it tried to draw up out of the water it was carrying the weight of both birds and fell back to the water. By the time I drew level with them it was spending periods where both were pretty much submerged. I walked right up to them in the water (only knee-deep), and after a few seconds thought about what was the best thing to do for them, grabbed the juvenile by the tail and pulled.

It came out straight away, but was clearly already dead. It had a large lump of something fishy and very bony stuck in its throat, holding its mouth open. Clearly once it got hold of the large bone, its mouth was stuck so wide it couldn't retract itself from the adult and presumably suffocated. It was sad that I couldn't do anything for the youngster, but I feel that I probably saved the life of the adult, which took off as soon as it was freed.

Then, the next day when I was walking back from the beach past the same spot I encountered the birds as shown below. It's easy to anthropomorphise it into something more than probably was, but it really did look like a family gathering at the body of the deceased. I gave them as much space as I could when I walked past and they quietly dispersed into the lagoon away from me (but didn't go far). When my partner came back from fishing an hour or so later I asked him what the shags were doing when he walked past, and he said they were at the carcass, similar to the photo I showed him which is posted here. So it seems that their presence at the carcass was deliberate, although they weren't there over the subsequent days.

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The whole thing was so weird that I thought it might be of interest to others.

Re: Unusual pied shag encounter

Posted: Sun Sep 22, 2019 8:24 pm
by lloydesler
Had an unusual sighting on Stewart Island a few years ago. A pied shag had hold of a large seahorse which was determined not to be eaten. Its tail was wrapped around the shag's throat but eventually it was jerked free and swallowed. I have the skull of a Yellow-eyed penguin with a fish skull jammed tight. A fatal mis-judgement. Also looking for two more people for a bird and plant trip to Chatham in November. email me at

Re: Unusual pied shag encounter

Posted: Sat Sep 28, 2019 11:13 pm
by Olwen
Thanks for this interesting if gruesome story. What a pickle they would have been in if you hadn't happened along!

Re: Unusual pied shag encounter

Posted: Sun Sep 29, 2019 2:52 pm
by Jan
Could they have been standing around waiting to get at the fish stuck in the dead bird's throat? Don't wish to be a horrible killjoy but it seems as good an explanation to me. Do they always eat live prey, I wonder?

Re: Unusual pied shag encounter

Posted: Wed Oct 02, 2019 8:57 pm
by Raewyn
Thanks for your replies. Jan, that's a good thought. The remains stuck in the dead bird's throat were very bony rather than fleshy so I don't know if that would attract them. I'm not aware of shags taking dead prey, but I guess it might be possible. What is also possible is that these birds were hungry. The usual mullet in the lagoon were missing this time. The adult shags were flying out to sea as usual, but I only remember seeing juveniles in and around the lagoon, and the only mullet I saw was one small school of fish no bigger than 50-60mm.