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Happening NOW: Return of the Brown Boobies

The fall of my freshman year of college I went home to Baltimore to snag what remain my coolest yard birds: a pair of Brown Boobies. In the late summer of that year a pair of these tropical sulids appeared in the Baltimore Inner Harbor—almost as close to downtown as geographically possible. They became quite the celebrities. Local newspapers, water taxi captains, marina owners, and more all joined in the ensuing madness over Baltimore’s wayward seabird visitors. At the time, these birds comprised just the second state record of this species. However, in the several years that have followed, Brown Boobies have gone from virtually unknown in the state to a bird species that annually, and which can produce upwards of a dozen reports a year.

The story in Maryland has been especially dramatic, but this trend has been witnessed across the continent in recent years. Just this year, birds have been found on the coast or in territorial waters in North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Maine, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland, among others. The other, potentially more interesting side of this story is that many of the birds turn up at remarkable inland locations. Again, just this year, birds have shown up at inland sites in Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Oklahoma.

The appearance of Brown Boobies up the coast has been dramatic, however as waters warm and currents start to shift, it may not be quite as extraordinary as it seems. It is the inland appearances that are so fascinating, as there is less obvious reasoning behind them. From 2009-2011 eBird shows no inland records of Brown Boobies. Every year since then shows at least one or two (but in some years as many as nine!) inland records of the species. Furthermore many—if not most—of these records were not associated with the movements of significant tropical systems.

Perhaps the uptick in inland records is no more than a symptom of the wider occurrence of this species overall in recent years. Even if that fairly simple explanation is the case, it has still been a remarkable thing to observe. Typically out-of-range Brown Boobies continue to turn up into fall and even early winter. By that all I mean to say is that we are still well-within the window for notable observations of this species. Also of note at this moment in time, is that while most of the most discussed records tend to occur in the east and the northern California coast, this is a species that should be looked for everywhere. Birds have occurred in Alaska, up rivers in Canada, on reservoirs in the desert southwest, and on recreational lakes across the Great Plains. So keep looking up and around and never discount that one (or several!) Brown Boobies could be hanging out nearby!

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