Wednesday, October 8, 2014

I love boobies! Brown Booby on San Diego pelagic trip

Brown Booby
Brown Booby. On a pelagic trip 3 miles off San Diego, California. September 21, 2014. Greg Gillson.
In 1934 Henry Miller wrote a book where he called a woman's breasts "boobies." Since then, that has become the first and primary meaning for that word in American English, sometimes with a vulgar connotation. However this meaning of the word has moved into mainstream usage. For instance, in 2000 the Keep-A-Breast Foundation coined the phrase: "I love boobies" to bring awareness to breast cancer.

Prior to that, however, a booby was the term for an awkward or stupid person. It is this meaning of the word that is the basis for naming a group of tropical seabirds. It seems that starving sailors in times past had no respect for birds with no natural fear of man. Thus, we have boobies, gooney birds (albatrosses), and the dodo. All these words mean foolish or stupid (a.k.a. "an easy dinner" or "it tastes like chicken").

Brown Booby

Brown Boobies are found in tropical oceans all around the world (but with a gap in the central and eastern South Pacific). In North America they are found in the Caribbean and southern Atlantic States. The white head of this bird in the photos is unique to the male Brown Booby of the "Brewster's" race found primarily off West Mexico. Identifying the gender of Brown Boobies elsewhere in the world is a bit more difficult. Breeding males have blue facial skin at the base of the bill while females have greenish facial skin. In these photos you can make out the bluish hue of the facial skin around the eyes.

Brown Boobies began breeding on the Coronado Islands a few years ago. These islands are about 9 miles off Tijuana, Mexico, and 15 miles south of San Diego Bay. Brown Boobies and, recently, a few Blue-footed Boobies have become regular visitors off beaches near the Mexican border. I haven't actually gone to look for them there yet at the end of Seacoast Drive in Imperial Beach.

Brown Booby

There are 7 species of boobies and 3 closely related species of gannets in the world. I've seen Brown, Blue-footed, and Masked boobies. But I have a special affinity for brown boobies.

The first Brown Booby I ever saw was while leading a pelagic trip off Depoe Bay, Oregon in October 1998. This large dark bird was flying directly at the boat, making it difficult to see exactly what it was. But I knew it was big, perhaps a skua. As it approached quite near I finally could see the classic "pointed at both ends" look. Since this was the first record of a booby of any kind in Oregon--and I'd never seen a booby other than in my field guides--I wasn't really prepared, and couldn't remember the name immediately. According to a nearby passenger I shouted out a stammering "b-b-b-b-booby!" It took a while to identify the bird to species as it was a juvenile bird, very dark, similar to the bird in the photo below. It is always exciting to discover a first state record!

Brown Booby
This immature Brown Booby off San Diego in September 2014 is actually paler
than the first one I identified off Depoe Bay, Oregon in October 1998.
A few years later, in October 2012 another Brown Booby was spotted and photographed from a pelagic trip I organized and led. This time the bird was an adult female and was, by then, a 5th state record for Oregon.

Besides my two Oregon sightings, I've seen Brown Boobies in Mexico a few times (including 90 individuals in the harbor at Mazatlan). But the three birds I saw last month (two photographed in this article) were my first for California.