The double-crested cormorants of Shepherdstown
Take a leisurely walk past Shepherd University’s ageless dining hall, and begin to cross the bridge that carries Route 34/480 across the Potomac.
After just a couple steps, look just to your right at an expanse of sycamore trees growing taller on the Maryland side of the river.
Those black birds you see congregated in the upper branches are not crows. They’re not ravens. No, they aren’t vultures or black ducks or even a raptor resting above the shoreline after searching for pigeons that like to stay on the stone pillars of the long-ago bridge that was destroyed by the 1936 flood.
Those birds are cormorants.
Even though you can’t see the adornment from any distance at all, the sleek fishermen are double crested cormorants.
They’ve come to fair Shepherdstown not as visitors to the Bavarian Inn nor customers at the local German Street bakery nor diners at the Clarion out on the turnpike toward Kearneysville.
The cormorants have followed migrating fish that have come to spawn in the Upper Potomac.
At different intervals from early April to early summer, yellow perch, white perch, and American shad lay their eggs in the warming waters of the river too often taken for granted that flows just below the shadow of the Rumsey Monument up on the cliff near the tracks.
Those cormorants you spy might be there in the branches with their wings spread wide — the better to dry their feathers after a dive into the river.
They might be craning their s-shaped necks, the better to see a flash of white or yellow that alerts them to their prey that doesn’t even know they are about.
They are docile types and don’t squabble over territory or try to wrangle the best locations in the river-front trees.
Cormorants can dive in an instant and have a fish dangling from their beaks in quick order.
In days mostly gone by in parts of the Orient, cormorants were tamed and then used by humans to catch fish. Rings were placed around the birds’ long necks, not so tight they would strangle the fish-gulping birds, but in a manner that the larger fish would be stuck there until the humans could extract them for themselves.
Smaller fish could slip past the rings and be food for the enterprising cormorants.
The cormorants that visit Shepherdstown on a yearly basis always find their places in those same sycamore trees on the Maryland side of the river. They are never on the West Virginia side where Almost Heaven or a Wild and Wonderful vacation would await them.
The birds are here later into the year in 2016. Some years they have already gone eastward and taken a river path to Montgomery County, the Chesapeake Bay or even closer to the Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
But the graceful black-feathered fishermen are still here this year . . . and those folks strolling with their dogs past the football stadium, dormitory and historic metal sign just before the river can easily see them as they set foot on the concrete bridge and look ahead to the sycamores anchored on the Maryland side of the ever-faithful Potomac.