Rarity finders: Brown Booby in East Sussex


On 2 January, a normal Sunday morning dog walk along an overcast seafront took an unexpected turn when my dog Marla made an exotic discovery on the beach in Hove, not far from the old pier …

The beach was showing signs of the previous few days' stormy seas. We had found an enormous live sea snail, a lot of plastic debris and, most strangely, a whole pineapple – plenty for the dog to get interested in. I didn't pay attention to her scampering away and was quite startled to notice her sniffing round a fairly substantial bird, which was hugging the cobbled wall at the back of the beach. A small group of people were collected at a little distance.

I was automatically expecting it to be a European Herring Gull – which are omnipresent in Brighton – but noticed with surprise it was the wrong colour, this bird being a dark and slightly dusty brown. It also had fuller tail feathers than a gull, which became slightly darker towards the tips. It was lovely, soft and shiny and not noticeably scrawny or scruffy to my eye – a beautiful specimen. Looking even closer the feathers were a little looser than a gulls, and the head looked almost shorn in a comically, almost skinhead-esque style. We were all slightly awestruck by this surprising looking creature.

Brown Booby, Hove, East Sussex (Clodagh Bannerman).

The face was eye-catching, with clear pale blue orbital rings which gazed quite calmly at us. It had a long, sharply-pointed and curved beak. It wasn't opening the beak or making calls or sounds and didn't seem distressed, except for the fact that it occasionally hid its head under its wing, which I took to mean it was as surprised and overwhelmed as we were.

I suggested to the onlookers that we give it more space so it may choose to make an escape – I didn't want my dog to scare it. Other people present said it had been approaching and following them a few moments before so, as there were plenty of dogs around, I think there was a protective element to staying close to it, while we decided as a group what to do.

The bird was taking the odd step back and forth and I remember noticing its large pale yellow webbed feet. Again, with gulls as such a familiar point of reference, the feet were much bigger and seemed more delicate, flexing and moulding themselves over the pebbles as it walked. The legs were fairly short and as I looked more closely, the neck had a definite curve to it, not unlike a heron, but more pronounced – almost strikingly a bit like a Dodo.

We discussed various options for next steps. Someone tried to make contact with a local wildlife organisation called Rogers Wildlife who take in and rehabilitate wounded animals. No joy. I called the local PDSA and we made a plan to take it there. Another onlooker went to get a box and towels.

At this point I regretfully had to leave for a shift at the local hospital, but I was pleased and relieved to hear that the bird was taken by volunteers to a safe place where it is being cared for. Colleagues on the Cardiac Care Unit used an app to identify the bird as a Brown Booby, and it was only then that I realised I'd been a witness to something special. Presuming it was most likely male due to the eye colour, and juvenile because of the colouring, I felt a bit heartbroken for this lovely little being who had got so badly lost and separated from his group and was such a long way from home.

I'm left feeling regret that I couldn't spend a bit longer with the bird, profoundly relieved that my dog was gentle with him, and thrilled and lucky to have had this rare experience at all.

Written by: Clodagh Bannerman

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