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‘Prehistoric-looking’ birds gathering by thousands on NC’s Outer Banks, experts say

NPS/A. Thompson photo

A spectacle is underway on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and it’s playing out largely when tourists aren’t around to be awed.

Photos shared by the National Park Service show birds are blanketing spaces typically devoted to beach towels and lounge chairs.

“Every year, double-crested cormorants use the Atlantic coast as a primary migration route in search of food and a more hospitable climate,” Cape Hatteras National Seashore wrote in a Nov. 27 Facebook post. “Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a key site along the Atlantic Flyway, where birds stop to feed and rest during their long journey.”

The birds travel in large groups (known as gulps), “and form a characteristic ‘V’ pattern, flying low, just above the water,” the park noted.

It’s estimated tens of thousands of cormorants will descend on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore during the annual migration, creating instances where the striking birds literally fill the horizon.

The park’s Facebook post has gotten hundreds of reactions, including some commenters who reported seeing “a gazillion” of the birds in some spots.

Double-crested cormorants are a “prehistoric-looking” blackish-brown bird that reaches just over two feet in length, with a wingspan of more than 48 inches, according to Cornell University’s All About Birds. Among their most striking features is “yellow-orange facial skin,” the site reports.

They are voracious eaters, consuming about a pound of fish per day, the park reported. The species also has an amazing ability to “pursue meals underwater down to 150 feet,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.

Cormorants spend winter (October through March) around the state’s sounds, the Center for Conservation Biology reports. Video shared on YouTube in 2020 showed thousands of them standing along the shore on Ocracoke Island, which the center says is indicative of “explosive population growth.”

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