Mike Gelsinger’s call came just before 10 p.m. on Nov. 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.”
Although he admits readily that he is not a birder, his description fit; Mike had compared what he was seeing with his field guide. Also, his cottage is at Mohawk Point, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Erie, and that day south and southwest winds of up to 60 mph 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 booby. 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 its white underside.
So I set out before dawn the next day to visit Mike’s cottage. When I arrived at 7 a.m., it was still 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.
At dawn, 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 a gull. 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, pointed and said, “There it is.”
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 3 feet.
When Canadian birders Kayo, Blayne and Jean Farnan and Bill Curry arrived, we discussed the possibility of carrying the apparently moribund bird to a rehabilitator. But before they had a chance to do so, the bird waddled to the top of a rock and flew west out over the lake.