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Birding In The National Parks: Chasing Boobies And Other Out-Of-Place Birds

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eBird reports of Blue-footed Boobies since August 2013 (left) and for all previous autumns from 2003 to 2012 combined (right).

“I’ll chase that bird with you if the furlough is still going on.” That was the message I got from a birding acquaintance concerning a rare bird in Michigan City, Indiana last week.

A Lesser Sand-Plover had shown up on the Lake Michigan beach. This is an Asian bird that sometimes makes an appearance in North America after taking a wrong turn during migration. In those cases, you’d expect to find a vagrant Lesser Sand-Plover on the Aleutian archipelago or perhaps mainland Alaska. In much rarer cases, one might make its way down the coast to Washington, Oregon, or even California. This one was running around on a beach in Indiana. That’s how big of a deal the sighting was.

I couldn’t make the two-and-a-half-hour drive the day it was reported, but intended to if it stuck around the next day as shorebirds sometimes do. Since the bird was in Michigan City, a funny thought occurred to me. I mentioned to my friend that while he was able to chase the bird on a normal workday because he was furloughed from his U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service job, it was possible the bird would amble further down the shore and end up in Indiana Dunes Lakeshore where we couldn’t legally chase it because of the same shutdown.

“The layers of irony there would be just too much,” was all he had to say.

The whole plan became moot when the bird disappeared that evening and was never seen again. A one-day wonder.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, some rare birds are making the whole fall a wonder. There’s an outright invasion of Blue-footed Boobies. Yes, the same iconic birds you see on every nature documentary from the Galapagos Islands.

Blue-footed Boobies are members of the family Sulidae, the gannets and boobies. There are five species of Sulid that can be encountered in North America. The Northern Gannet is a common sight offshore along the East and Gulf coasts in the winter. Brown Boobies don’t nest anywhere in the continental United States, but are reliably seen at Dry Tortugas National Park off the southern tip of Florida. One somehow ended up on the Niagara River in Buffalo two weeks ago.

Masked Boobies weren’t historical nesters in the United States, but have been nesting on Hospital Key at Dry Tortugas for almost 30 years now. The last species, Red-footed Booby, is a very rare visitor to the United States, but when they do they show up, a good place to find them is – you guessed it – Dry Tortugas National Park!

While Dry Tortugas is apparently the Sulid capital of the United States, it doesn’t get the strictly Pacific Blue-footed Boobies. They’re common all the way up into the Gulf of California, but rarely make it to any U.S. shores.

The Southern California coast and offshore sites of Channel Islands National Park are good spots to see the occasional vagrant. Some years, there could even have been several of the birds in California waters in the fall.

This fall, birders are reporting dozens of Blue-footed Boobies from single islands! The invasion began in Southern California, with locales like Anacapa Island in Channel Island National Park seeing numerous boobies. Before long, the first booby was spotted at the lighthouse in Point Reyes National Seashore. Now, they’ve made it all the way to British Columbia – or at least one has.

As with many birds, irruptions are regular and somewhat predictable. (Reference the Snowy Owl irruption of 2011-2012) During irruption years for Blue-footed Boobies, immature birds are known to travel north, but this kind of irruption is unprecedented for northward expansion and sheer numbers.

The only disappointing thing about all the boobies invading the West Coast is that with most of them being immature birds, they don’t have the gaudy blue feet that have made them one of the most recognizable birds in the world.

One of the funniest things to come out of the whole irruption is that Facebook on at least one occasion censored the use of the phrase “juvenile boobies” for obvious reasons that nevertheless highlighted the limits of censorship programs.

For the record, boobies are named after the Spanish word bobo, meaning “clown” or “fool” because of their clumsiness on land and tameness around humans, which has resulted in many of them becoming easy dinner for sailors.

Traveler postscript: At 1 p.m Central Time Monday the Sand Plover was spotted at Long Lake (south side of the West Beach portion of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore). The bird was located toward the east end of the lake with a flock of Killdeer.


I was hoping to see pictures of boobies but apparently Traveler must have censored them. LOL

Nice is nice to know when and where to look for out of place birds.

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