The Flight of the Boobies

Pillar Point Harbor, on the San Mateo County coast, is a Mecca for avian ratites. I mean the sort of rarites that makes a birder want to jump in their car and drive all night or book a last minute flight to the west coast. A drop-everything-and- go rarity.

A prime example was the Ross’s gull that showed up on Thursday January 12, 2017 and stayed until it was taken by a pair of peregrine falcons on Saturday afternoon. This is a mega rarity and only the second record in the lower 48.

I saw my first booby in Pillar Point. A brown booby had flown into the harbor in January 2003 and perched on the breakwater.

There are six species of boobies. The name comes from the Spanish word bobo, meaning “stupid” or “clown”. This refers to their tame disposition. Because they show little fear towards humans, there were easy to capture and kill for food.

Almost fifteen years later, another booby flew into Pillar Point Harbor. This time it was the smallest species of booby, a native to southern tropical waters , the red-footed booby (Sula sula).

With climate change, will we see more equatorial birds coming into Pillar Point to rest and be seen by birds former and wide? We can only hope to see the silver lining.


An Extremely Rare California Gull

On Thursday January 12, 2017 at 2:07 PM, word went out of (a birding lists digest) that a very rare gull had been  found in a parking lot in Pillar Point Harbor, just north of Half Moon Bay. This small, dove-like gull was a Ross’s Gull, an arctic breeder that spends it’s time feeding near ice flows in the Arctic. And this gull was only the second time this species had ever been seen in California. It was previously seen in November of 2006 in, (where else?) the Salton Sea.

On the following day, Friday the 13th, I saw that the gull had been seen up until 3:20 PM on Thursday when it had flown north and the Ross’s could not be refound.  I knew where I would be heading after work to attempt to add a rare gem of a bird to my list but in the morning, the gull’s location was a mystery. Then it was refound at 12:20 at the Half Moon Bay Airport. Now if the gull would only stick until I could get there! But the gull flew east, fortunately no further than the flooded Brussels sprout field across highway one.

I left work and headed west on Highway 92, willing the gull to stay put and not head north into oblivion. Traffic slowed through Half Moon Bay and was equally as sluggish once I turned north on Highway One. I passed the intersection to Princeton, just a bit further, then I spotted all the cars pulled over on either side of the highway. I parked and swiftly walked north, towards the hordes of birders.

The Ross’s stood out like a sore thumb, a brilliantly white gull in a brown field. Bingo Lifebird #509, the perfect lifer!


The Ross’s gull in the flooded field, across Highway One from the Half Moon Bay Airport on Friday the 13th, 2017.

The Ross’s was the perfect lifer because it was ultra rare (only the second California record), it was seen in amazing afternoon light, it was tame and extremely accommodating, it was only 30 yards away in a puddle by itself (no massive gull flock to muddle through), and it acted as if 150 crazed birders watching it was an everyday experience.


Field sketch from Highway One.


Overexposed digiscope photo of the Ross’s. The little gull was scanning the skies, two peregrines were spotted earlier, heading northeast.


The hordes or birders from near and far, enjoying a late afternoon gull from the edge of Highway One.


On the following day, Saturday January 14, at 2:10 PM, it was reported that the Ross’s Gull had been flushed up from the flooded field by a pair of peregrines and the gull was taken by the two falcons, ending it’s wayward journey.