Searching for a Brown Booby…in Buffalo?

When I think about boobies, as I suspect 52% of my readers do, I think about crystalline blue waters, white sandy beaches, and mangrove islands.

Brown Booby, Antigua, by Ted Eubanks

Juvenile Brown Booby, Antigua. Adults have a white belly and a clearly demarcated black throat. (© Ted Eubanks)

And when I think about Brown Boobies, in particular, I think about large colonies loitering on islands in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. This is a strictly marine species that inhabits the “pantropical” oceans and sometimes crawls up both U.S. coasts. Inland sitings of the bird are extremely rare.

eBird reports of Brown Booby (Sula Leucogaster).

eBird reports of Brown Booby (Sula Leucogaster).

But when I think about boobies, I never think about them flying over the Buffalo, New York (though once again, I suspect several of my western New York readers do). And yet, such a Brown Booby now exists, as of two Sunday’s ago, when it was spotted by a western New York birder named Jim Pawlicki.

Since then, people have traveled from remote outposts to see the bird. Just yesterday, I broke out of chains the office and drove 90 miles to this old shipping town, which is on the farthest eastern corner of Lake Erie, a stone’s throw from the Niagara River. The Niagara River happens to be a world-class gulling location, and it’s no stranger to rarities.

I was told that the bird is best viewed from “tower” at the Erie Basin Marina. As if preparing birders for this very day, the marina features a 3-story concrete look-out tower. I parked my car at the base (no fees), grabbed my scope and bins out of the car, and climbed step by heart-pounding step to the top of the tower. When I arrived at 3 pm, I was greeted by a handful of birders, including a few from Buffalo Ornithological Society and a science teacher.

We traded information on the bird’s whereabouts and behavior. The bird, a female adult, was mostly being seen in the early morning or the late afternoon. It was hanging out with hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants, which are not so far from boobies on the family tree.

The booby had been seen roosting or flying between the pier and lighthouse, which was more than a MILE offshore, a stone’s throw from Canadian waters. Each of us had our spotting scopes trained on the distant rocks and kept scanning in the hopes that one of the cormorants would soon morph into a booby. Our mutual hope and anxiety was high. How much would it stink to come all this way and miss the bird?
Birder with bins (5 of 7)

Though the pier was littered with feisty cormorants, we could barely see their silhouettes by eye. It was an partly sunny day, with clouds constantly changing the light pattern. We had to find and positively identify the bird before the sun set directly behind the pier. It was low in the sky already. Would we do it?

breakwalls off Buffalo waterfront

Under these low light and distant conditions, binoculars were useless so I was glad to have the clarity and brightness of the Swarovski ATX. I travel with the lighter weight 65 mm and had forgotten to bring the 85 mm. Major Doh! moment. This was a perfect situation for the 85 mm and it would have given me much greater magnification, and therefore patience, as I scanned the pier.

We scanned for an hour, maybe 90 minutes, until a new party climbed the steps. “M,” who owns Wild Birds Unlimited store, and her friend now made the already impressive the ratio of women to men on the tower a full 7:1. Nice to see the sistas doin’ it for themselves! And hello, Mr. Poeth!

Buffalo Brown Booby - 2

Soon after they arrived, “M” and her friend said, “I think we found it! On the right extreme edge of the lighthouse!” All eyes went to the lighthouse to confirm their suspicions. We were looking at a bird that yes, seemed to be shaped differently and, in some lighting conditions, showed a light-colored belly. Even though signs pointed to yes, the rest of us weren’t ready to claim victory until we had seen all the field marks for ourselves.

We examined it longer, longer, hoping it would stop preening and lift its head so we could see a clear view of its bill and chest. “Yes, yes, I see a whitish belly…no, now it moved…” “YELLOW BILL! Wait, maybe not…”

As evening fell, the light kept changing in our favor.  So when the light finally became perfect, as well as the bird’s posture, the bird showed the clear profile of a booby, a white belly with dark, contrasting chest, and a large, yellowish bill. We had our bird! I let others – those who’d brought only bins –  view the bird in my scope. They let out tears and claps…

Buffalo Brown Booby - 1

Best I could get by using by digiscoping with my iPhone and Swarovski ATX 65 mm.

To see magnificent photos of THIS BIRD taken by the original spotter, go to this Flickr link (go on, click).

We found our booby, a bird…

  • so famous that it was written up in the Wall Street Journal
  • so rare it gave birders weeks of birding fun…
  • so well-named it gave countless opportunities for adolescent jokes and boundless possibilities for alliteration.

But how did the bird get here? Sometimes these rare, out-of-range sightings are correlated with recent storm systems. As far as I know, this one hasn’t been linked with a known storm.

Even the best birders are baffled by the Brown Booby in Buffalo.


Timely Fact: Boobies were named because they are slow and dim witted. A group of boobies is called a congress. I report the news. You make the connections.


Laura Kammermeier

Laura Kammermeier is the creator and managing editor of Nature Travel Network. She is a writer, website producer, traveler, birder and a birding/nature travel consultant. Laura has traveled Uganda, Europe, Ecuador, Belize, Honduras, Israel, and throughout the United States Read More

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  • Jenn Smith Nelson October 16, 2013, 20:44

    Great post Laura and glad to hear of your happy ending!

    • Laura Kammermeier October 18, 2013, 11:24

      Thanks, Jenn! What great nature have you been discovering lately? Will we see a piece on your Sask journey? Good luck with your new website revolution, by the way. That can be such a fun and revealing process. LMK if you need any feedback along the way (I build sites for a living, so have an eye for these sorts of things).

      Let’s chat soon!

  • Carol Skinner October 17, 2013, 12:43

    Boobies are spectacular divers. Unlike pelicans, which “cannonball” into the water and gulp huge quantities of water and fish in relatively shallow dives, boobies power dive below the surface and rocket through the water as they target their prey. If you are fortunate enough to be near a booby feeding frenzy get your mask and snorkel and duck underwater for an exciting view of these amazingly beautiful avian piscivores. Chances are you will not witness this behavior from the Buffalo Brown Booby, but boobies in the Caribbean and Galapagos are very accommodating. Get out there!

    • Laura Kammermeier October 18, 2013, 11:19


      Beside it being great to hear from you here, I love your description of how these birds dive. I am now jonesing to see this. Do you have an in-law suite, perhaps we should call it “an in-birder” suite? 😉

      Actually, my desire to do serious seabirding has become too uncomfortable to ignore.

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