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A cormorant look-a-like but seen more often than not on open sea and on sea cliffs


Photograph by: 
Peter Orchard

Shag: the lesser cormorant

Post date: Thursday, 15 January, 2015 - 00:00

I am often asked what the difference is between a cormorant and a shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) and the simple answer is that there are many differences when you see them close up and side by side! From a distance, however, they are much harder to separate, the shag being a bit smaller and having darker colouring all over.

However, the best guide, and a pretty reliable one too, is to say cormorants like inland waters (rivers and large lakes) and sandy areas off shore whereas the shag is very much a bird of the cliffs and open sea; indeed I should really have included the shag in the seabird series..

If you see a bird diving in sandy Swanage Bay, for example, it will be a cormorant, but round Peverell Point and head along the Purbecks coast and they will almost certainly then be shag. Take care, though, whilst a good guide it does not always work! Shag can be seen in Poole Harbour sometimes, especially in the winter months and cormorants can be found on open sea.

Finally, a bit of nonsense I learned at primary school: the lesser cormorant or shag lays its eggs inside a paper bag. At night bears come, eating buns, and steal the bags to hold the crumbs.


The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Sites List Distribution Map Some Charts Some Photographs Original Tweets Relatives Guidance Notes
Common Name Shag
Scientific Name Phalacrocorax aristotelis
Status Local
Interest Level
Species Family Cormorants and Divers
  • 01 - January
  • 02 - February
  • 03 - March
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 06 - June
  • 07 - July
  • 08 - August
  • 09 - September
  • 10 - October
  • 11 - November
  • 12 - December
Preferred Environment
  • Open sea
  • Rocky cliffs and shores
Look for Cormorants out on the open sea and perched on sea cliffs
Additional Identification Notes
  • The shag is superficially like a cormorant, a little smaller and lacking the white face (but only in adults!)
  • The shag, however, favours open sea and nests on rocky cliff fcaes whereas the cormaornat prefers estuaries and rives and water in land
  • If seen in good light the shag has glossy dark green/brown plumage and the males have a crest during the breeding season