Rarity finders: Brown Booby in the Isles of Scilly


Our family had planned a trip to France together this summer, but it was aborted last week. The summer holidays were on the verge of collapse, so we decided at the last minute to have a short break somewhere in Britain.

With a bonanza of seabirds in the South-West, it was a relatively easy choice to head to Cornwall. We had done so a few weeks before and enjoyed a record count of 6,500 Cory's Shearwaters off Porthgwarra, as well as a Fea's-type Petrel.

But this time a family day trip to the Isles of Scilly was on the cards, with our children having never been before. The Scillonian was the only option as our three dogs were coming too! I strategically slipped in the 'small issue' of there being a lifer (Red-footed Booby) waiting on the other side and through the kids' sniggers at its name, explained that it had red feet and, yes, it was an actual bird. So, we set off from Penzance with eager anticipation on the morning of 28 August. The crossing was rough at times, but good numbers of both Cory's and Great Shearwaters kept the 30 birders on board happy. Certainly, plenty of images were taken to look through and play the 'Scopoli Monopoly'!

We docked at St Mary's and the family went off with my credit card while I scrambled on to Joe Pender's famous MV Sapphire, bound for Bishop Rock Lighthouse. The Red-footed Booby had failed to show during the previous afternoon, but that wasn't too surprising as the weather had been atrocious with heavy rain and big seas.

Thirty-two birders were on the boat and anticipation was high, the weather was good and distant images suggested there was indeed a bird sat in the booby's favourite place on the netting surrounding the lighthouse helipad. As we neared the lighthouse, the candidate materialised into the target bird, much to everyone's pleasure.

The long-staying Red-footed Booby kindly hung around for Mark's family visit to Scilly on 28 August (Tom Hines).

Most birders were precariously balancing with their cameras pointing almost vertically skyward towards the top of the lighthouse, but the swell on the sea was making matters tricky, despite Joe's super piloting of the boat. After some 25 minutes we moved around the lighthouse to offer a slightly different angle. At this point I stopped looking upwards and my attention was drawn to the small assemblage of shags and cormorants sat on the very close lower tier of the lighthouse. I took a few pics of a group of five or six birds and then looked at them on the back of my camera, principally to see if any of them had any anomalies – Double-crested Cormorant must fall again at some point!

I was immediately struck by a bird hidden in the mix. All I could make out was a startling white chest, but nothing else. I raised my binoculars had a split-second view of a small gannet-type bird, but suddenly the boat started reversing away from the position. I looked around and everyone was still fixated upwards on the Red-footed Booby. I got up, rapidly staggered to the front of the boat, receiving some very odd looks from other birders as I did so. I said to a rather questioning Joe that he had to take the boat back to the position we had just been in, as although it was a bold call, I thought there could be a Brown Booby on the lower tier!

Joe logically offered that pale cormorants do occur. Nevertheless, he did kindly start to manoeuvre back to where we had come from, this without anyone else on the boat knowing what was going on. Within seconds of going around the lighthouse an adult Brown Booby was staring back at us, no more than 10 m away at eye level! I abandoned the cabin, pointed at the base of the lighthouse and screamed to the other birders: "Brown Booby!"

Brown Booby with European Shag at Bishop Rock Lighthouse, 28 August 2023 (Richard Stonier).

This was met with disbelieving looks and incredulity, followed by total amazement and joy. The 'boat of dreams' had done it again! The magnitude of two species of booby together on the same lighthouse off Scilly at the same time seemed impossible to believe – yet it was true. A moment of British birding folklore had just happened. 

I then started taking proper images of the bird before having to sit down. Joe put the news out locally and messages began to appear on Twitter. The lucky 32 birders were overjoyed, and we shared in a celebratory selfie – in what has become a tradition aboard the Sapphire this season. 

After another 20 minutes we left the scene so that Joe could pick the resident birders up and head straight back out. I am writing this back on the Cornish mainland from a tent in a field near St Just. It's nearly 11 pm – what a day!  We could have so easily missed the Brown Booby, despite it being right under our noses – but we didn't! Phew.

Huge credit for the pioneering team at Scilly Pelagics and Joe, without whom these experiences would not exist in the first place.



Written by: Mark Thomas