Whenever the display on my cell phone reads, “Frank Rohrbacher,” I have a very predictable Pavlovian response. I feel the adrenaline start to flow and I instantly throttle up to the birder equivalent of DEFCON 2. Of course, Frank will call about ordinary matters from time to time, but variable-schedule reinforcement is the most potent kind and my subconscious clearly has forged an unbreakable link: “call from Frank Rohrbacher = news of rare bird.”
This morning, that call came in around 8 AM. Frank wanted to e-mail me pictures he was nearly certain were of a booby (only birders get to write sentences like that with a straight face). “It came aboard a party fishing boat yesterday afternoon and Steve Cardano shot some pictures of it,” he intoned in a voice that has lost very little of its New England character despite years in the mid-Atlantic. “The amazing part is the darn thing rode the boat all the way back into the harbor in Lewes. Would you be able to run down there and have a look?”
By that time, the pictures had arrived in my inbox. I looked at them quickly, searching for signs that it might be a scarce but not unheard-of summer gannet. Nope. This was a booby all right. Could it possibly be a Red-footed Booby? Didn’t look like it. Less than adult sulids can be something of an identification nightmare, but I felt certain enough this was in fact a Brown.* This would make it Delaware’s first and any day your state gets a life bird is one to remember.
“Liz and I will be down there inside of twenty minutes–we’ll let you know as soon as we find anything,” I said, and I began hastily grabbing the appropriate gear for such an expedition; i.e., binoculars, scope, cameras. That’s right, cameraS.
Brown Booby (side) aboard the Thelma Dale IV photo ©Steve Cardano
Arriving at Fisherman’s Wharf in downtown Lewes, we began our search. The Thelma Dale IV was back out on the water by then, so we couldn’t inspect the boat itself. We looked all around the docks, then made our way along the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal and out to Roosevelt Inlet, scanning the pilings for any sign of this wayward tropical seabird. I also made a point of looking in the water where it was visible, as there was the grim possibility that the bird might have perished overnight.
Finding nothing, we got in touch with Steve Cardano. He offered to call the boat’s captain, but not until 10:30, when they would be in place for the morning’s fishing. We continued looking around, talking to the woman who sells tickets for fishing and sightseeing trips, and waiting. Steve called back and said that after the boat docked on Monday, one of the crew who knew of someone with a connection to a local marine mammal rescue group had captured the bird–apparently with no difficulty–and taken it to their facility, which is just down the road from the docks.
We raced down to the marine mammal place, MERR. It turned out that our information wasn’t completely accurate. The bird had been boxed and transported, but to Tri-State Bird Rescue in Newark, Delaware, at the north end of the state. Many of you will know Tri-State from their work in the Gulf of Mexico during the current Deepwater Horizon disaster; they’ve long been a leader in salvaging oiled birds and do lots of good work all around.
Whoever answered the phone at Tri-State told Suzanne, the director of MERR, that they had received a gannet from Lewes that had come ashore aboard a fishing boat and were caring for it. Suzanne told the rehabber that she had been shown photos of the bird by an expert in bird identification and that the bird looked awfully good for Brown Booby, but was firmly told that, no, it was a gannet. A professor had looked at the photos and said so. Oh well.**
Now that the search for the bird is over, there are of course a few lingering questions. From a bird records standpoint, it’s important to know where the bird came aboard the boat. The e-mail I have from Steve says, “30 degrees 51 min. N and 75 degrees 10 min. W. or approximately 8 miles north of Lewes, DE in the Delaware Bay.” There’s a little bit of confusion here, because that latitude doesn’t cross Delaware Bay. It’s closer to Cumberland Island, Georgia, just north of the Florida line. So I’m thinking it’s likely 38 degrees 51 min. N. That would be somewhere not too far offshore from Broadkill Beach, Delaware. 3.43 miles NE of the May, 2008 Wood Sandpiper, as I measure it. That looks more like 6 miles north of Lewes to me, so I’m still a little unsure. In any event, when I get more detailed information on the location I’ll be sure to spread the word.
I’ll leave any discussion of ship-assisted vagrancy to others. I’ve always been of the opinion that if a bird isn’t somehow restrained, intentionally or unintentionally, it matters little whether it hitched a ride on an aircraft carrier or a coconut.
Another issue that’s been raised is whether the bird belongs in rehab or not. I can’t say. Steve’s opinion was that it wasn’t emaciated (he lightly touched it in the chest, which it tolerated). But it did remain aboard the boat and didn’t make any move to evade capture, so perhaps it was starving or otherwise in distress. The folks at Tri-State will be in a much better position to judge. Again, I’ll pass on any word.
Finally, I don’t know anything about when and where the bird will be released, if it survives. Earlier this year, a rehabbed Red-footed Booby made headlines by hanging around shore in South Florida for quite a while.
All in all, a fascinating record. And another yet another reason I’ll always jump–in the best way–when my phone reads, “Frank Rohrbacher.”
*Peter Pyle comments, after being sent the photo by Mary Gustafson: “Brown, no problem. Red-foots have red feet at all ages out of the nest and a black bill as a juv that becomes pinkish and bluish within the first year, never slate like this. I can also just see the breast cut-off, never found in Red-footed. Many things eliminate Masked. So juvenile Brown.”
**According to birder-photographer extraordinaire Kim Steininger, who volunteers with Tri-State, they are now comfortable with the identification of Brown Booby.