Hot on the heels of what appears to have been the first sighting of Brown Booby in Britain in Kent on 19 August, another appeared later in the month at St Ives, on the north coast of Cornwall. This one lingered but was never easy to catch up with. Although it showed well at times, it never settled for very long in one place, and many birders failed to see it despite multiple visits to the area. I was one of the unlucky ones, despite living fairly nearby in south-west Cornwall, although a very distant bird seen from Godrevy Point on 30th just might have been it.
As a result of my wife’s long association with the Lizard, we bought a timeshare on the peninsula in 2008 and I have been birding there every autumn since. In 2017 we took the plunge and moved to the area and the Lizard has become my local patch. I rarely stray further afield, preferring to spend my time in search of my own birds, or catching up with those found by the small but dedicated band of local birders.
Over the years I have managed to find scarce migrants such as Red-backed Shrike, Richard's Pipit and Yellow-browed Warbler on the Lizard, and there was one very brief sighting of an Olive-backed Pipit, but nothing to really get the pulse racing. Despite a fair amount of seawatching, I always seem to miss the best birds, including the Black-browed Albatross earlier this year.
I was up bright and early on 2 September to look for a Red-backed Shrike that had been found in Caerthillian Cove, north-west of Lizard village, and to see what other migrants might have turned up. The shrike proved quite elusive but was eventually re-found by local birder Mark Pass and I joined Ilya Maclean and Toby Phelps in tracking it down to an area of open scrub where I spent a bit of time using my brand new Swarovski ATX to digiscope it. By now it was clear that there were other migrants around. Several Tree Pipits passed overhead and the bushes held quite a few Blackcaps and Willow Warblers. Following our normal approach, we spread out to search for migrants in different parts of the Lizard. I decided to spend the rest of the morning hunting along the clifftops and bushes to the north around Kynance Cove.
Leaving my scope in the car I walked to the nearby cliff and began to descend towards an area of short turf in the hope of finding a wheatear or pipit. I had only gone a few metres when I noticed a large, dark bird flying over the water below me. I raised my binoculars to get a closer view, assuming it would be a juvenile gull or perhaps a Northern Gannet. To my utter disbelief, I appeared to be looking at a young Brown Booby. But surely it had to be a juvenile gannet? Despite mounting panic, I forced myself to check for the key identification features. From above it was completely dark brown and I couldn’t see any white on the rump. When it banked round I could see that the brown breast contrasted sharply with a white belly, and the face and beak weren’t right for a gannet. I watched for a few seconds as it did a shallow dive for fish, rising again to continue circling low over the bay. Surely it was a Brown Booby, or was I hallucinating? I dashed back to the car to get my scope.
One of the first things David noted about the bird was the uniform brown upperparts, lacking any white in the rump as in Northern Gannet (Jaz Hughes).
The bird was still fishing in the bay when I arrived back at the clifftop. With the scope I could see the white lining to the underwing and it was obvious that I was looking at a Brown Booby. It was time to get the news out so that other local birders could share the bird. But the Lizard is not well known for its phone reception, and I knew that I would have to run back up to the car park if I was to have any chance of getting a signal. Unfortunately, my fumbled attempt to get a message out on the WhatsApp failed, so I tried ringing Tony Blunden and was relieved when he picked up. However, the signal was poor and I had to try again to finally get the message through.
I returned to the clifftop to relocate the bird and wait for the others to arrive. There was no sign of the booby in the bay so I scanned further out and then started to check the rocks below in case it had landed. When Mark and Ilya came panting down the slope, I had that sinking feeling as I explained I had lost sight of it, but that hopefully it would be sitting on one of the rocks. There was a moment of panic, but unbelievably, Tony had picked it up from his house 3 km away and had watched it land on a pyramid-shaped rock just outside Kynance Cove. Mark and Ilya soon spotted a likely bird from a vantage point a bit further along the coast and with the aid of my telescope we were able to confirm that it was indeed the Brown Booby. By the time Toby arrive breathlessly (having run the 3 km from Bass Point on the other side of the Lizard) all he had to do was look through the scope.
Ever since it was found, the Brown Booby has favoured this pyramid-shaped rock for resting and preening (Brian Anderson).
We quickly put out the news so that birders in Cornwall and beyond were aware, and started to consider the booby in more detail. Mark, who had seen the St Ives individual, soon realised that it was a different bird. Even at the distance from which we were looking (about 500 m), it was clear that this bird had an all blue-grey bill and face, whereas the one at St Ives evidently showed some yellow.
With its blue-tinged bill and face, brownish wash to the belly and worn secondaries, the Kynance Cove Brown Booby is very clearly a different bird to that seen at St Ives (Jaz Hughes).
It lingered for about an hour and a half, preening and generally looking very settled, by which time the last of the birders who were still at St Ives in the forlorn hope of seeing that bird (it hadn’t been located at all the previous day) were able to arrive in time to see it, and a variety of coastal walkers and sightseers also happened upon it. When eventually it did stir, it did a few laps of Kynance Cove and the bay where I had initially seen it and went back to the same rock – as indeed it did for the next several days.
Naturally, I was thrilled that after more than 50 years of birding, I had finally found something really rare – but a big part of the pleasure I got from the bird was being able to share it with others. If it had flown out to sea and never been seen again, rather than perching for all to view on a nearby rock, the experience would have been much less rewarding. It was a particular joy to share it with the local Lizard birders, but also with the guys who had all but given up hope of seeing the St Ives bird. I have never had my hand so heartily shaken by so many people in my life!
From the clifftops at Kynance Cove, the Brown Booby could be observed fishing throughout the day, performing shallow dives such as this (Nick Truby).
There was something particularly poignant about showing it to the two young women who were just completing their walk along the South West Coast Path from Minehead to Lizard, having raised thousands of pounds for The Wildlife Trusts. They were thrilled to see such a rare bird at the end of their walk, and I took great pleasure in showing it to them.
The day was rounded off with a good bottle of Cornish bubbly.
David's sketches of the Brown Booby, put together from his field notes.