Red-footed Booby at Fowey Rocks

Clear skies and a low chance of rain. That’s what the weather forecast claimed. Yet even in the pre-dawn, there was no denying the thick blanket of clouds enveloping Miami. We entered the channel and sped past Cape Florida, aiming our bow toward Fowey Rocks Lighthouse in the open seas beyond. Dark streaks of rain blurred the line between sea and clouds on the horizon, revealing only a sliver of blushing sky where I expected the sun to rise. I sighed. It was going to be one of those days.

The sun peaks above the horizon behind Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, Biscayne National Park.

The sun peaks above the horizon behind Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, Biscayne National Park.

I gazed at the unpromising sky several moments before stretching to my feet. I turned to watch as another boat pulled up. It bobbed a short distance off, its riders speaking in hushed tones as they rigged fishing rods to catch live bait. I looked back at the sky and saw the pink shifting, dissipating even. It wasn’t the scene I’d hoped for, but there was something calming in it; perhaps the muted palette, perhaps the neighbor’s whispers. As a swell caught us broadside, I weaved unsteadily toward my camera case. I waited for us to steady, then grabbed my gear and began taking pictures in stolen moments of calm. 

I slowed my shutter and let waves paint their motion onto the scene. I changed my settings for speed and captured the sun’s rosy globe as it peeked above the sea before disappearing behind the veil of clouds. Then there was darkness. The lighthouse shown as a black silhouette against a monotonous gray background; and then the upper layer of clouds unexpectedly cleared. There would be a second sunrise, above the cloud bank! 

I confess, I was too absorbed in sunrise shots to notice which birds were sitting on the 140 year-old lighthouse. Even after prodding, it took a moment for me to shift my gaze from the sun’s angle to the jostling shadows lining the rusting infrastructure.

“Look at the feet on the Booby to the right. What color are they?”

I squinted through the shadows at the indicated bird as our boat nudged closer, “Pinkish, I think.”

More commonly observed Brown Booby at Fowey Rocks Lighthouse (Double-crested Cormorant in the background).

More commonly observed Brown Booby at Fowey Rocks Lighthouse (Double-crested Cormorant in the background).

Even as I spoke, I scrambled toward my camera case and switched to my wildlife lens. Boobies are offshore feeders not regularly seen in South Florida, although Fowey Light often has a few Brown Boobies roosting there. But Brown Boobies have yellow feet, not pinkish. Could this be a juvenile Red-footed Booby? I’d never seen a Red-footed Booby in the U.S. They are vagrants from the Caribbean, seldom seen in Florida and mostly in the Dry Tortugas. I knew I needed pictures both for a solid identification and to document the occurrence.

It wasn’t until returning home in the evening, after a pleasant day fishing and a not-so-pleasant race back through stormy weather, that I verified my sighting. Pictures of the bird filled my computer screen, bird identification books spread across my desk and a trusted birding friend confirmed the ID as a Red-footed Booby. It was only then, confident in my own record sighting, that I checked eBird. Florida records were indeed rare and increasingly so the closer I zoomed the map to Miami. As for Fowey Rocks? There was only one other recent sighting of a Red-footed Booby at the lighthouse, by a couple in June 2011. 

Yes. It was one of those days, but not in the way I expected.

Juvenile Red-footed Booby at Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, November 5, 2016.

Juvenile Red-footed Booby at Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, November 5, 2016.

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