Monday, November 19, 2018

November is Red-footed Booby Month


California is a blessed state to live in if you have an appreciation for our friendliest of friends, the Sulidae...in fact, all six species that have been observed in the ABA Area have been seen in California just this year, culminating with five booby species on a single pelagic trip. But up until 2018, things were very different. For years, the grail booby (bail grooby, if you will) in the back of everyone's mind here in California was the Red-footed. They were less than annual in the state...sometimes years would go by without any being found. Many of California's records came in 1987 alone, and after that year almost all records were restricted to San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties. They often featured starving/sick/otherwise dying birds (often found to have ingested fish hooks) that likely rode into harbors on ships and eventually expired or were taken into rehab. Ship-assisted dying birds, what fun rarities to go chase.

So while much of SoCal had to be content with trying to go see birds about to die, those of us further north had to be content with ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Red-footed Boobies simply would just not show up since that great year when most of us had far better things to be doing. Personally, I was busy being 5 years old and living in Massachusetts. So while seeing a Red-footed Booby in California was something in the realm of dreams for me for many years, I could be content with having spent a lot of time with them on Midway Atoll, where the above photo was taken. At Midway, you just walk up to them and try not to get your face melted off. For those of you who have not had the pleasure, walking through a nesting colony of Red-footed Boobies is not only as cool as you think it is, it is way better.

All droughts come to an end though, and in 2017 the Northern California Red-footed Booby Drought was over! The drought-buster was an immature roosting on a breakwater in Pillar Point Harbor in San Mateo County. This regional MEGUH was the state bird I had been waiting for, so in mid-November I lurked over to the coast.


Having been up close to them previously on many occasions, I was content to watch the bird from the pier with the other schmucks instead of renting a kayak and paddling right up to it...had to settle with digiscoping for photos. I was thrilled just to see the thing though, no crushes necessary...it was the first I'd seen since Midway (2009) and it might be the first and last I would see in the state. Even in this horrendous picture you can see the long, thin bill (which was clearly pinkish IRL) with dark tip and very pale head and breast.


While there was no doubt of the bird's identity whatsoever, I was still hoping to see the underwings. Immature Brown and Red-footed Boobies are fairly similar, or at least can be when not seen well, and completely dark wing linings are a great field mark for Red-footed. The bird abided several times, showing me what I wanted to see...aside from the distance involved, a very nice walkup Vague Runt. It definitely was not the most enjoyable RFBO viewing experience I've had though, as the many other birders who were showing up were remarkably clueless and kept getting in the way of vehicles and fishermen working on the docks to the point where I was getting embarrassed to be standing with them. It was all so...typical. Anyhow, the bird stayed for weeks so was obviously able to feed itself, and hopefully left for points south on its own accord. Thanks Josiah and Ryan for the great bird.

A year later, much had changed. 2018 turned out to be THE YEAR for boobies in California. While Brown Booby and Northern Gannet numbers were average (hundreds and exactly one, respectively) and Blue-footed Boobies were slightly above average, the numbers of Nazca, Masked and Red-footed were off the charts. Nazca suddenly turned into an expected species on SoCal pelagic trips. Masked Boobies were reported from 7+ counties and Red-footed Booby from 9+...including from deep inside San Francisco Bay...just unbelievable. It's probably not a good thing they all came up here (presumably food was harder to find further south), but they sure spiced up the birding.

I did my part and found a wayward booby (which was submitted to the Bird Police as a Masked, though admittedly it may not be accepted as such), but did not get in on the Red-footed action, despite them being seen up north on multiple occasions. November had come, and I thought the booby window may have closed...but I was wrong. Thankfully a birder-camp host found one roosting at the state park she was staying at in Aptos, Santa Cruz County, just off a pier.


This was even closer to home than the previous year's booby...why not make a November trip to the coast to look for Red-footed Booby an annual event? So there I was, a year later, looking at another Red-footed Booby in Northern California. What are the odds? Strange things happen, so maybe Red-footed Boobies in California in November is not such a strange thing after all. There were already November records, but the late fall pattern of occurrence has only become bolder in the last couple of years.


Viewing conditions for this booby were much better than at Pillar Point Harbor. I woke up at a stupid early hour in the morning (not my toddler's fault, my brain's fault) so got there with plenty of time to watch it, for an extended period of time, do pretty much nothing...a behavior I have great respect for. Oh, and for you One Bird Theory fanatics, no, this is not the same bird as last year, yes, it is probably the same bird seen on two Shearwater Journeys trip earlier this fall, and I think it is unlikely it is the same bird that was seen from Pt. Pinos in late August. There was also the Moss Landing bird that was so close to death it fell off the mast of a boat and had to go to rehab (maybe it died?), and the carcass found at Moss Landing even before that...it probably isn't those. Oh, and it's not the bird on Southeast Farallon Island either.

Damn, that's a lot of Red-footed Booby sightings in a small area. That would be a lot for even San Diego, but this is no typical year.


Mmmm...dark underwings. Blonde head. Pink bill. Reddish feet! Put those field marks together and you get Great Success. Seeing the booby here was also fulfilling a prophecy to myself...I had camped up the beach earlier in the summer and was struck by how good this half-sunken ship next to the pier would be for a roosting booby...and it is!

The Year of The Booby is about to draw to a close, but there is still a month left to go. Anything can happen! More Nazcas please.

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