Brown Booby photo taken November 2, 2013
on Mohawk Point, Lowbanks, Ontario, Canada by G. Rising
Mike Gelsinger's call came just before 10:00 p.m. on Friday, November 1. I remembered Mike from earlier email exchanges. On the phone he was quite excited: "There's a brown booby in the front yard at my cottage," he told me.
I get calls like this rather often and they always raise questions. Non-birders occasionally mistake common birds for rarities. One I recall confused a catbird for a Clark's nutcracker.
But Mike went on to give me some details. Although he admits readily that he is not a birder, his description of this one fit; he had compared what he was seeing with his field guide. Also, his cottage is at Mohawk Point on the north shore of Lake Erie and that day south and southwest winds of up to 60 miles per hour could have driven this bird onto land.
Under normal circumstances I would have been hard put to accept any report of a brown booby in this region. This is a species of the tropical ocean. Birders travel to the Dry Tortugas, miles south of Key West, to see them. Recently, however, a booby had made its way to Buffalo, where it had been seen off and on for several weeks mixing with the cormorants near the Small Boat Harbor. When this species was first reported there by Jim Pawlicki, senior regional ornithologist Kayo Roy told him, "This is the rarest bird reported in this region in modern times." Kayo said that his restriction to modern times was only because birds like the now extinct passenger pigeon had once occurred here.
I was in fact one of those who climbed to the tower and spent hours looking for this bird. When it was finally pointed out to me by Kim Hartquist, it was a quarter mile off, seated on the concrete corner of the old lighthouse base. I could barely make out the bird to say nothing of its field marks. All I could note was the fact that it was shaped differently from the nearby cormorants and gulls. Thankfully Kim and others with better telescopes and better eyes picked up the species' characteristics: general brown color, a light bill, yellowish feet and a white belly. Then a final clue: when it raised its wings, it showed their white undersides.
In any case on that Friday night I accepted Mike's judgment and the following day set out before dawn to visit his cottage.
When I arrived just after 7:00 a.m., it was still quite dark, but I spent the next half hour looking for the bird. I checked the cottage lawn, the beachfront and the line of rocks next to the road. No luck.
Now dawn was upon me and I saw my first bird flying along the shore. Was it the booby? I ran out onto the beach, only to see that it was indeed a gull. But then, just as I returned to the road, a truck pulled up and Dan Hill asked me if I had seen the booby. When I told him that I hadn't, he got out and pointed; "There it is," he said.
And indeed, there crouched a brown booby, shivering and with its head under its wing. I had nearly stepped on it when I climbed over the rocks to get to the beach.
After a time the booby briefly brought out its head to look at us and it stood up, exposing those bright yellow duck feet. I was able to take the photo that accompanies this column from a distance of only about three feet.
Later, Canadian birders Kayo Roy, Blayne and Jean Farnan and Bill Curry arrived and we discussed the possibility of carrying the apparently moribund bird to a rehabilitator. But before they had a chance to so so and shortly after I left, the bird waddled to the top of a rock and flew west out over the lake.
On the way home at the Peace Bridge I was asked the reason for my trip to Canada. When I told the agent that it was to see a rare brown booby, he responded, "Last week I saw a dozen of them from the Maid of the Mist." Eager to move on, I didn't argue.
Sadly, as of this posting, there have been no further sightings of this rare bird.-- Gerry Rising