Brown Booby Surprise

It is an ecstatic experience when your student becomes the master. This happened on a late Sunday morning birding adventure.

I took young Grasshopper Sparrow out to Coyote Point Recreational Area to bird the bay and marsh. He needed to work on his life list and birding skills and this area of open marsh and bay in San Mateo County is as good as any place to hone your observation and identification skills.

There were many birds out on the exposed mudflats: sandpipers, snowy egrets, American avocets, black-belled plovers, whimbrels, and long-billed curlews. Beyond the flats on the San Francisco Bay were rafts of buffleheads, cormorants, western grebes, common goldeneyes, ruddy ducks, and surf scoters. A birding class, returning from the point, even informed us that the rare ongoing male harlequin duck was on the bay but had headed further out and might be hard to see.


There were many Gashawks in the air, including this massive A380 on final approach to SFO.

IMG_8467There also were many black-bellied plovers out foraging on the mudflats.

As we walked along the jetty to the east, Grasshopper was beginning to see some species for the first time. Out on the bay were surf scoter, common goldeneye, and American wigeon, all birds that were lifers. There where a few glaucous-winged gulls out on the sand spit which was a new gull for my acolyte. In the marina were horned grebe and least sandpiper.

Seeing these birds with Grasshopper, took me back to the time when many of these birds where new to me too. We all begin somewhere and at sometime and the avian world is as new as a summer, sunny morning.

We headed out to the point and scanned the bay waters for the local male harlequin duck. But the duck was out on sight but not out of mind. We then headed back to the marsh area where we watched green-winged teal, shoveller ducks, and a immature peregrine falcon perched on a power tower.

Grasshopper sat down and did a field sketch of the young peregrine on
the power tower while I watched an osprey circling above the bay. We
heard a sora’s “whinny” call from the reeds but the sulky rail didn’t
make an appearance.

We walked back to the parking lot and paused to look at an adult
red-shoulder hawk perched about 30 feet up a power tower. That is when
Grasshopper Sparrow looked south towards the bay and spotted an
unusual bird in the air. He called my attention to the long-winged
bird with a prominent dagger-like bill that was not a gull, pelican,
or cormorant.

“Brown booby!” Grasshopper exclaimed as he ran towards the shoreline
to get a better view.

I hurried over as fast as I could with my sketching bag, camera,
binoculars, and a scope and tripod slung over my shoulder, which turns
out not to be very fast at all. I joined Grasshopper on the shoreline
path and put my bins on the bird. Sure enough, there was a very rare
San Francisco Bay (and very rare for Northern California) bird
circling in front of us: an adult brown booby (Sula leucogaster)! I
took about ten photos to confirm its existence to the birding

Seeing this amazing seabird in flight was incredible but even more
amazing was that my young fledging birder companion first spotted and
identified a rare bird that he had never seen before in his life!

He was hoping to see this booby species on a Disney Cruise on the
western Coast of Mexico. He had seen this cruise as a “five day
pelagic instead of a cruise” and had studied this bird guides to note the field marks and behaviors of the brown booby, but alas, he did not
see the bird on the cruise; And in a location where you would most
expect it.

Instead, he found the booby away from its expected range, far to the north and not over the ocean but over bay waters. These surprises are the reason we leave the house with binoculars. We see the wonders of
the avian wonder, both the common residents and reacquainting ourselves with wintering visitors. But, we always dream of that unexpected surprise. That bird that just shouldn’t be. We live for
these surprises of the natural world. A bird can really turn up
anywhere. They do have wings after all.

One thought on “Brown Booby Surprise

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