Death of a Seabird Rarely Seen on Cape Cod

Oct 4, 2017

Credit Washington Post

Within an hour of submitting my bird report for last week, in which I confidently declared that Hurricane Jose had brought no storm-blown tropical birds to Massachusetts, I received a text message that would prove me wrong. A mysterious and apparently sick bird had been called in from LeCount’s Hollow Beach in Wellfleet.

This big, funny looking seabird was first called in as a gannet, and then thought to be a Brown Booby, a tropical seabird that visits our waters rarely but with increasing frequency over the last several years. But the pictures weren’t quite right for Brown Booby, and I eventually realized that we had something that was, ornithologically speaking, way cooler – a Masked Booby. By then the bird was in the capable hands of Wild Care in Eastham, where staff were already consulting with experts in the treatment of tropical birds. When I saw it, the patient, an immature bird, was weak but still spunky, stabbing its dagger bill at the staff attempting to save it.

A Masked Booby had only ever been seen in Massachusetts waters once before, when Captain Joe Huckemeyer of the Helen H photographed an adult about 100 miles south of Nantucket on a tuna charter. These warm, continental shelf waters, which harbor whale sharks and flying fish, are technically in Massachusetts thanks to a quirk of coastal geology, but are at the same latitude as New Jersey. It feels a little like cheating to consider birds found in these far away, Gulf Stream-influenced waters to be “our” birds.

But this Wellfleet bird was now the first Masked Booby ever on, or even near land in the long ornithological history of New England. None of the many previous hurricanes and tropical storms to hit the northeast had brought one, so this was not a bird on anyone’s radar. So Lynn Kirby, the kind woman who initially reported the bird from LeCount’s Hollow, can be forgiven for not knowing exactly what she was seeing.

Masked Boobies breed on small oceanic islands scattered across the warm oceans of the world, the closest being the Dry Tortugas, 60 miles west of Key West. They also breed in Hawaii, off East Africa, and at the mouth of the Red Sea. They feed in deep oceanic waters, often in the company of tuna and dolphins, and flying fish are a favorite food. Like their larger local relatives the gannets, boobies plunge dive over shoals of bait fish, often in spectacular fashion, but at a shallower angle than gannets.

Sadly, after some initial signs of improvement, the booby took a turn for the worse on Sunday night and died Monday morning. The complicated respiratory infection was hard to treat, and the prognosis was never certain. Wild Care did all they could, as they do with all of the thousands of creatures they care for. Wildlife rehabilitation is hard and thankless work, so consider donating to Wild Care or your local facility for all they do.

This bird will not die in vain, as Tuft University will conduct a necropsy to study the cause of death, and the specimen will eventually reside in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, where it will be available to researchers in perpetuity. And in its short life, this young Masked Booby had its story told in publications ranging from the Boston Globe to the Washington Post to National Geographic, which is more than most people can say.

Jose had been gone for a couple of days, and no other tropical seabirds had been seen, indicating to me that the storm track was not right to bring them here.

It’s hard to say what happened with this guy, but it’s possible he was caught in the eye and eventually spit out the north or west side of the storm while it was parked offshore. As I always say, birds have wings, and you never know where they’ll end up. So if you ever happen see an odd looking bird on a beach, give it a second look – you never know, it could be you that wins the next booby prize…

Mark Faherty is science coordinator at Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary