Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Red-footed Booby, SULA SULA, immature

from the June 6, 2011 Newsletter issued from Mayan Beach Garden Inn 20 kms north of Mahahual, Quintana Roo, México

The sun was going down at the rocky point below us as I sat watching especially big waves break onto the beach. Movement in weeds not far away caught my eye. I walked over and saw what's shown above.

At first I thought he was a seagull, but then I noticed the unusually slender, 4½-ft-across (1.4m) wings bent sharply at the wrists, and the long, straight, thick-based beak. It was an immature booby, and why wasn't he flying away? That's a head shot below.

Red-footed Booby, SULA SULA, immature, head

He just more or less sprawled atop the weeds but then he seemed to summon strength and resolve. He pulled his wings around his body and perched more birdly. He held his head up and looked around, showing his orange-yellow feet and white chest, as shown below:

Red-footed Booby, SULA SULA, immature

No monofilament fishline or broken netting entangled is wings or legs, no plastic beer-can collars straight-jacketed his body, in fact no outward signs at all indicated why he wasn't flying away. Then it seemed that the question of why he wasn't flying away also came to him, for he squared himself a little, peered into the sky, seemed to take a big breath, he tensed himself as if about to launch into the vast, windy, ocean-smelling blueness... and fell forward, his beak sticking ingloriously into the sand. And then he just lay there, his wings sprawled as before, his beak in the sand.

I had to look away. Maybe he had a piece of plastic in his gut he'd confused for a fish. This time it looked as if he was really giving up. What could I do but walk away, damning to eternity all this plastic washed up on the beach, and every other pollutant and piece of junk that could have caused this?

Despite having such a close look, it was hard to figure out which booby species this was. In our area we have the Masked, Brown and Red-footed Boobies. The Red-footed species has a "white morph," and I figured that that's what we have here -- an immature white morph of the Red-footed Booby. Among the field marks indicating this are the bird's white chest and neck, its brown eyes surrounded by a slight bluish tinge, and the "dusky-flesh" beak with a dark tip -- all features mentioned in the "fine print" of Howell's "A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America." Happily, my friend Dave in Bermuda, a real expert on aquatic birds, agrees that it's a Red-footed Booby, SULA SULA.

Howell also writes that Red-footed Boobies are rarely seen near mainland, and that they skim low over water chasing flying-fish. What our bird was doing among the weeds at the windy rocky point that day, I can't say.

Red-footed Boobies breed and wander widely in all the Earth's tropical waters. This week I've seen a couple of small booby flocks heading northward just offshore, even though the species permanently resides in this area.