I’m partial to boobies. These slightly smaller and more elegant cousins of our Northern Gannet ply tropical seas hunting for elusive schools of fish that they will hover over and then plunge into to nab a meal.
Thomas Nuttall, in his book The Birds of the United States, published in the 1890’s, writes: “…[it] acquired its degrading name from its silly aspect and peculiar stupidity, suffering itself to be taken, not only at sea on the ship’s yards, but also on land, where these birds may be despatched merely with clubs and sticks in great numbers one after the other, without seeming to take any general alarm, or using any efficient effort for escape.” Boobies in flight, however, are another thing as they gracefully wheel into the wind and glide high over the water searching for prey.. …..and then plunge head first, sometimes from good heights, after its quarry.
Boobies are one of the prime reasons I got talked into going on a commercial cruise (not a seabird counting “cruise”) by my wife to celebrate our 40th. (I can see the wheels turning…..”he must have been married at the age of 10!”) I figured this would be a prime time to add to my pelagic list. Running into Key West we encountered Brown Boobies well offshore but still in sight of land. But our next stop was Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Getting there involved steaming all day on December 9th. I had high hopes.
We were running down the north coast of Cuba but far enough offshore that the island itself couldn’t be seen. I spent most of the day (when I wasn’t eating) sitting on the balcony splitting my time between reading and watching. Off Newfoundland/Labrador, in the nutrient-rich Labrador Current you can’t go very far without seeing a bird- sometimes hundreds of birds. But this was different. All day I searched and…..nothing! By the time it got dark I still hadn’t seen a single bird. This marked the first day in my life, when I have actively sought out birds, that I didn’t see one. Sobering. If not scary.
I had seen a Brown Booby before. My good friend Durlan Ingersoll, who is the first mate on the whale watching tour out of Seal Cove on Grand Manan Island and who is an excellent pelagic birder, spotted one in the Bay of Fundy while we were out ostensibly looking for whales. He excitedly ran the length of the vessel to point it out. I think it was only the second (maybe the first?) sighting for the province of New Brunswick – explaining his excitement. So while seeing a Brown Booby was nice……it wasn’t a “tick”. A couple of days later though, heading into the southern Bahamas, a few Masked Boobies accompanied the ship for half a day – but there were only a few. Every now and again a flying fish, bursting through the surface, would attract their attention.
The lack of avian action caused me to wonder: how much of it was due to the simple fact that tropical oceans are nutrient-poor (warm stratified surface water keep nutrients from making their way to the surface) and how much was due to the general decline in bird numbers seen throughout the world. A recent report, The State of Birds in the U.S. 2014, notes this decline and sets out 4 major “acute and chronic” impactors: “…..fishing operations that deplete stocks of prey, offshore wind development, oil contamination, and plastic pollution.” Maybe I did well to see what I did see.