Wayward brown booby a delight for Ohio birders
September 20, 2020
Big bird news erupted Aug. 25 when word of a brown booby appeared on various birding forums.
Henry Trimpe, along with longtime birders Dwight and Ann Chasar, discovered the bird late that day at Nimisila Reservoir near Akron.
Brown boobies normally are strictly ocean-going birds. They breed on islands in tropical seas nearly worldwide. Seeing one inland on fresh water, especially as far north as Ohio, is unusual indeed.
Trimpe’s find quickly mobilized the binocular-toting crowd, and birders descended on the site the next morning. And there was the booby, in the very tree that it was seen in the previous evening.
This dead shoreline tree turned out to be the booby’s favored roost site, and, when it wasn’t fishing over the lake, it returned to perch on one the tree’s limbs. This habit made it simple to find and, over the next few days, hundreds of birders converged on the site.
Boobies are quite tame, and seemingly fearless of people. Thus, the fawning masses had no effect on it, although the optical-laden crowds drew the attention of other people.
Non-birder to birder: “What are you all looking at?”
Birder: “Brown booby.”
The funny name derives from the Spanish bobo, meaning dunce. Consulting Gary Meiter’s informative book, “Bird is the Word,” reveals this: “Sailors apparently named the birds because they were so tame and easily caught. Then the ship’s cook could prepare a big pot of booby stew.” Boobies are not dumb; rather they are extraordinarily tame, as many isolated island-dwelling animals tend to be.
I could not get to Nimisila Reservoir until Aug. 29, but I need not have worried — the bird was still present and seemingly at home in its unnatural freshwater haunts.
It wasn’t long before I was gazing upon it. The spectacular bird was up in the tree on its favorite branch, watching the world go by. As the best place for unobstructed views and photos was out in the lake, I waded in with tripod and camera.
Brown boobies are especially impressive: The 2½-pound bird is 1½ feet long, with a wingspan of nearly 5 feet.
Juveniles, like this bird, are brown throughout, though adults have bright-white bellies. Their large yellowish feet are webbed and ducklike, and the stout stiletto of a bill is designed for seizing fish.
I had hardly settled into my watery lookout when a young peregrine falcon shot in and took a swipe at the booby. The aggressive raptor then chased the seabird around the lake, occasionally forcing it to the water. I don’t think it was an effort to kill the booby; the falcon likely was exerting dominance over a completely foreign large bird, a notion reinforced when the falcon appropriated the booby’s favored perch.
After the falcon left, the booby commenced fishing, making plunge dives to grab small prey. These freshwater fish probably were easier to take than a favored oceanic food, flying fish.
Why would a brown booby be on a freshwater lake in northeast Ohio, 1,100 miles north of its normal saltwater purlieu? Hurricane Laura. This storm formed off the coast of Africa a few days before this booby appeared, and it swept across the Atlantic. It undoubtedly blew the young, inexperienced bird far to the north, giving Ohio its first record of an unexpected species.
Unfortunately, the booby never made it back to southern oceans. Sometime during the night of Sept. 4 or the next day’s early hours, a great horned owl apparently picked it off. The booby’s wings were found below the tree, and dismemberment is a calling card of these powerful owls.
During its stay, though, this booby enriched many lives and brought a taste of tropical oceans to Ohio.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.