“Birds have wings and tend to use them.” This oft-referenced birder adage is commonly attributed to Roger Tory Peterson, the father of the modern field guide. Every species of animal has a range of natural occurrence. Some can be found around the globe, and others are quite locationally restricted. Most birds have little reason to stray from their seasonal home bases or established migratory paths, and yet it still happens regularly. Nature doesn’t always follow its own rules. A land-bound mammal or reptile may wander and disperse, but they can only get so far. Thanks to the power of flight, out-of-place avians have the capacity to get properly lost.
Word of a bird outside its typical range tends to spread quickly in the birding community. That’s why I was surprised when a post came in that Cornell undergrads competing in the annual Montezuma Muckrace on September 17th had refound a Brown Booby at the north end of Cayuga Lake. I had not heard of the previous report, which came in three weeks prior on August 28th. This silly-named seabird is found in tropical oceans worldwide, and, for perspective, is considered a pretty good find in the waters off Florida. A sighting this far north and this far from the coast was an amazingly improbable event. Birders rushed to the scene and determined that the booby, an adult female, was spending most of her time on a buoy far out in the middle of the lake. When she wasn’t making low-altitude, weaving flights to hunt for fish, she was content to sit tight on her secluded perch for hours on end. At least that could help explain how she’d managed to avoid detection for more than half a month in a region as rich in birders as the Cayuga Basin.
Boobies are fun, and this record is a hell of a state bird. I haven’t seen this species since I visited the Caribbean, but I elected not to make a trip up to the Finger Lakes the next day. I had Sunday prep to finish for the coming week, and I was scheduled for a journey to Ithaca for Cornell Homecoming in just a few days. 2016 was even established as a Grand Bonecoming, a celebration invented by the Big Red trombones as an excuse for alumni to return en masse every three years. If the bird lingered, time permitted, and the stars aligned, maybe I would get to chase her down in between festivities at my alma mater.
Throughout the work week, reports came in daily from birders who’d made the trip to take a peek at the booby. She proved to be very reliable, and the saga surrounding her stay at the lake entertained as it unfolded via email and eBird. Discussions of which shore was best for viewing the buoy led the discovery that one well-positioned road on the east side was in fact a private driveway. The owner proved very accommodating once the situation was explained to him, and he allowed visiting birders to stop and scan as long as they called ahead for permission. Photos accompanying reports ranged from distant brown blobs to a stunning portrait taken by the ever-resourceful Jay McGowan via kayak. I was starting to get the itch to see this bird, and I kept my fingers firmly crossed that she would remain. On Friday, as I geared up for departure, I received an update that she was still on site. Jackpot.
I was feeling pretty good as I rolled out of Queens, planning to swing past the booby spot and then meet my friends for dinner. My excitement turned to dread when I realized the “alternate route” my GPS was taking me on was bringing me straight to Manhattan. Road conditions were even worse than usual due to UN week, which has most of the crosstown routes blocked, and the travel situation rapidly deteriorated. I fought my way through cranky cops and terrible traffic as I bailed on Manhattan, backtracked to Queens, and slogged through the Bronx at a snail’s pace. It became clear I would not have time to see the bird, and I only reached Ithaca after a 9-hour ordeal on the roads. I quickly set about partying with my people, who were absolutely worth the trouble, and turned in with plans to chase at first light.
I was a bit apprehensive as I drove north on Saturday morning. The previous night, drink in hand, I’d read my first negative report. Anthony Collerton had driven up and failed to locate her around the time I was still fighting NYC traffic. Breaking the week-long streak of reliability definitely set me on edge. The heat shimmer from the western shore was brutal when I arrived just after sunrise, and the shapes perched on Buoy 49 could not be resolved into birds. I called up the private property owner, who graciously granted me access to his road on the opposite side of the lake. I parked, set up my scope, and scanned. No booby. Although I saw several distant cormorants that briefly gave me hope, I found no sign of the vagrant bird in over an hour standing vigil. I eventually admitted defeat and returned to Ithaca for brunch with the bones, posting to the New York listserv that the booby was a no-show. To my surprise, a speedy response came through from Jay that the bird had been resighted further south and reported on the Cayuga Basin listserv.
I finished up my meal at a leisurely pace and started out again. The drive to the new spot was much shorter, but when I arrived I found Jay departing with news that the bird had already done so. She had apparently been fishing actively, flying back and forth and floating on the water rather than resting on a perch. She’d drifted north, then south, then out of sight. I put in a good chunk of time sweeping the horizon, but I finally called off the hunt and returned to Ithaca empty-handed. She was, of course, seen again in the afternoon, but I was happily busy with homecoming craziness. Cornell actually won the game for a change, we played some fun songs, and there was no shortage of food and drink to be had. I shut off the birding brain for the rest of the day and enjoyed my limited time with my old pals. No regrets there.
As I pulled together my things on Sunday morning, I received a notification that the booby had returned to Buoy 49. Third time’s a charm, right? My original plan was to take one last crack at the runaround sulid and then turn south for Long Island, but my friends convinced me to stick around for dinner. What’s more, they even piled into the car with me to keep me company on the birding side-trip! The hour-long journey up the lakeshore was much more agreeable with Dylan, Aly, Rohan, Shark, and Lizzie to help me pass the time. The good times kept on rolling as we rolled up to the site and immediately found our target resting at her favorite perch.
Although the photographs I took fall squarely in the “brown blob” category, we actually managed to get decent views of the booby through my scope as she surveyed the shimmering surface of Cayuga Lake. Everyone took turns admiring the bird from our vantage point atop a hill, and we each had a quick drink from a celebratory bottle of wine. With high spirits, we returned to Cornell, laughing all the way. A genuinely epic twitch came to a close on a high note, and the non-birding components of my trip upstate were well-worth the travel frustrations, initial booby strike-outs, and the midnight run back south for work on Monday morning. I always love an excuse to get together with my band buddies, and they seemed to appreciate the chance to “see me in action” in the field.
P.S. Go Red!
Year List Update, September 25 – 398 Species (+ Brown Booby)