Rarity finders: Red-footed Booby in the Isles of Scilly


"Hello, it's me again, with the latest dispatch from Scilly Pelagics on the south-western frontier. The pelagic crew has survived with honour several waves of Scopoli's Shearwater. However, the state of mind of the crew was severely affected by the South Polar Skua assault that I gave an account of last week. I report with concern an outbreak of hangovers among the crew. Yesterday we were struck by a bolt out of the blue. A Red-footed Booby swooped into the wash of our vessel breaking defences at the stern. It then arced around and flew alongside the boat on port side for a minute and a half in a cleverly worked manoeuvre that sent all crew onboard into delirium, whereby chaos ensued. We returned to port immediately where there was total disorder with a number of the crew sprinting straight to the pub. I report with grave concern that all control over the crew will be lost with the eventuality of another mega off Scilly."

The 17th annual Oriole Birding pelagic weekend with Scilly Pelagics ran over the dates Friday 4 to Monday 7 August. The Friday evening trip to the south found four Wilson's Storm Petrels and about 60 Cory's and 40 Great Shearwaters, all giving fantastic views. Pressure was off with the 'big three' secured that first evening.

Overnight, a short, severe storm hit Scilly and at the departure time of 9 am waves were breaching the walls of St Mary's Quay. Scilly Pelagics never cancels, but we gave Oriole the choice of a wet and windy Saturday, or deferring Saturday to a calmer Monday. The latter was the obvious choice. The scheduled Sunday daytime pelagic steamed eastwards to Seven Stones Reef where we nailed a classic Scopoli's Shearwater at close range. The pleasing support cast to the mega included more than 150 Cory's, 35 Great and three Sooty Shearwaters, along with two more Wilson's and, another rare bird for Scilly, a 'blue' Northern Fulmar. All species gave sensational views and the photographers had their fill.

The rescheduled Monday pelagic departed St Mary's Quay at 9 am. We headed to Pol Bank, some 5 km south-west of Bishop Rock, via a number of small tuna feeds with attendant Cory's and Great Shearwaters, respectively logging around 105 and 35 of them. At the reef, we drifted with chum deployed and enjoyed yet more superb views of four Wilson's Storm Petrels. All too soon, it was time to head back after a truly successful and enjoyable weekend. Skipper Joe Pender asked me which route back I would prefer. Like the film Sliding Doors, little did I know that I was mulling over the choice between a nice gentle run home or, in a British context, perhaps the most sensational at-sea seabird encounter of all time.

Light-morph first-cycle Red-footed Booby, 2 km southwest of Bishop Rock, Isles of Scilly. The smallest, sleekest booby, with a characteristic small head, long neck, long and sleek body, angular wings and a very long, attenuated tail (Joe Pender).

I chose the route via Bishop Rock, steaming by points where we'd encountered Desertas and Zino's Petrels in recent years. The step-up to the cabin gave me elevation to scan over the heads of participants. We were towing chum and Richard Stonier was chucking bits of bread over the stern, ensuring a good following of common seabirds with the aim of attracting skuas, Sabine's Gull and shearwaters. The best I could find among them was a second-summer Yellow-legged Gull. I tootled to the stern to point it out to Richard. We chatted and scanned the wash several times but the gull had dropped back.

Drawn in by the throng of feeding activity behind the boat, a largish, darkish bird swooped around from the bow on the starboard side, over our heads, and into the wash, turning into the wash to face us at about 10 m back. Nothing much registered as immature Northern Gannets frequently behave this way and I cannot see detail without wearing my spectacles, which is too awkward for me at sea. As birders do, while chatting, I lifted my bins to look at the new arrival. The bird was head-on.

Deep shock shuddered through me, from head to toe – I felt the surge of an adrenaline rush in my neck, over my shoulders and down my arms. I felt my knees weaken. Why? Because the bloody bird had a pinkish bill, that's why! In that instant, I added to the pinkish bill a tiny whitish head and small beady eyes, a distinctive look that I know so well. I yelled: "Red-footed Booby!" and, according to Richard, I kept blurting out: "It's got a pinkish bill, it's got a pinkish bill, it's got a pinkish bill!" ... Yelling at the back of the boat is not always heard at the front, but the word passed back pretty quickly and what I could hear behind me I can only describe as insanity.

In the first moult cycle, juveniles are brown overall and the bill is dark grey. As the moult cycle progresses, light-morph birds attain a whitish head and body, whitish on the upper forewing and the bill becomes pinkish. In the second moult cycle, light-morph birds start to look more like adult birds. The Scilly bird best fits a light-morph first-cycle bird (Richard Stonier).

However, the bird soon turned around and started to fly away down the wash searching for food. 'This is a disaster,' I thought. We had barely had time to clock the main features. Richard was shooting with his camera and at least we would have identifiable shots of the booby rear-on. How unsatisfactory ... but wait, at 50 m the booby turned 180 degrees and flew parallel to and along with the boat, off the port side, maintaining perhaps a 50-m distance. Its speed was only a tad faster than the boat, allowing glorious views for a minute and a half, enough time for us all to clock the distinctive shape of the bird and the details of its immature plumage. The booby then turned away, headed off to the north-west and was lost to view.

More than any other bird on Scilly Pelagics, the Red-footed Booby set off fireworks on board. It was madness. There was clapping, cheering, laughing, squealing and crying going on all at once. The festivities continued all the way back to the quay. I hid in the cabin for five minutes when I felt emotions overwhelming me. As we disembarked, there was hugging and handshaking. No one on board will ever forget this trip.

Later on in life, when I'm in a care home, having lost all reason, I can imagine that I will be sat in an armchair gibbering: "It's got a pinkish bill, it's got a pinkish bill, it's got a pinkish bill". None of the care workers will have the slightest clue as to what those words really mean.

This oceanic encounter would have been truly fitting for a first for Britain. Unfortunately, along with last week's oceanic South Polar Skua sighting, they were both beaten to the post by birds in boxes and on beaches.

Breeds commonly in the south Caribbean Sea, with smaller numbers on Ascension Island, South Atlantic, and a tiny number in the Cape Verde Islands, North Atlantic. The likelihood is that this bird crossed the Atlantic from the Caribbean in the powerful weather systems of the last few weeks (Joe Pender).

Written by: Bob Flood

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