A Rare Visitor

Warning: bird content.

About a month ago, a very interesting post appearing in the “bird sightings” section of the Birding NZ forums. A red-footed booby had been sighted in New Zealand for only the second time ever, and even more excitingly, it was at the Muriwai gannet colony. As the previous sighting had been in the far-flung Kermadec Islands, this new bird’s location only 40 minutes from Auckland made it the first real chance for nearly all birders here (including us, obviously) to add it to their life list.

Red-footed boobies are in the same family as the Australasian gannets that nest at Muriwai, but generally prefer more tropical conditions. They live in the Pacific, Indian, and western Atlantic oceans; their closest habitat to New Zealand is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and a colony in Tonga. While the birds in the Kermadecs were likely from the Tongan colony (only 780 kilometers away), the bird at Muriwai had a black tail indicating that it was likely a member of the Galapagos subspecies and so was over 10,000 kilometers away from home! Not only was this bird the first mainland sighting of a red-footed booby, it was the first bird of this subspecies to be seen in New Zealand, ever.

On the first weekend after the sighting, M and I drove out to Muriwai in the evening. Posts on the forum had stated that the bird returned back to the colony after about 6 p.m., and when we arrived we found a predictably large crowd of birders. A few had set up scopes while others held their cameras expectantly, but the fact that everyone was just milling around instead of focused on one spot meant that the bird hadn’t arrived yet. Its favorite perch was only a few meters away from the viewing platform, empty. The people with the scopes let others look through them: the booby was apparently floating around in the sea within a large group of gannets (called a raft). We looked, but to be honest I couldn’t quite tell which bird was the booby. We waited for the birds to start heading back to the colony as rain clouds built overhead. After about half an hour, the booby was spotted in a group flying towards the colony. It made a few circuits around the viewing platform, to the excitement of everyone gathered there, then landed out of sight below. At this point the rain had started to come down and M’s patience was nearing its end, so we went home, happy that we’d at least glimpsed its red feet during the flybys.

A few weeks later, we were driving back from the Bay of Islands with my friend and decided that Muriwai Beach and the gannet colony was a must-visit as an example of the west coast beaches in New Zealand. We arrived in the afternoon and wandered out to the viewing platforms. My friend loved the views out to sea and of the beach, but I had spotted something far more interesting. The red-footed booby was there, merely ten meters away from us, preening itself on a branch.

gannet1
Even without the feet visible, the booby’s rainbow beak is distinct.

I convinced my friend to take these photos since we hadn’t brought our camera. She wasn’t as excited about the bird as we were, of course, but was impressed that it had come from so far away.

The booby was just as unconcerned with our presence as the gannets were, and it seemed to be comfortable hanging out with its cousins. As of last week, the booby was reported to still be there: the best place outside of the Galapagos to see one!


Sources:
http://www.birdingnz.net/forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=6449
http://www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/red-footed-booby

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