Saturday 26 August 2023

The Booby Prize 24th August 2023

c Mark

Well where do I begin? This was the most stressful and energy sapping twitch I have ever experienced and that is saying quite a lot.

This blog may go on slightly but let's commence at the beginning and take it from there.

On Monday August 7th a boatload of birders on one of Bob Flood's celebrated pelagic trips off the Isles of Scilly were, to put it mildly, enthralled and ecstatic when, two miles southwest of the Bishop Rock Lighthouse, a Red footed Booby was  seen and photographed as it flew past them. Its identity was in no doubt - it was indisputably a second summer Red footed Booby, only the second record for Britain.The first was an ailing juvenile.washed up on a beach at St Leonards on Sea in East Sussex  on the 4th of August 2016 and taken into care. 

Red footed Boobies are related to gannets and are widespread in tropical and sub tropical areas of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. .I have seen them at Bird Island in The Seychelles which lies in the Indian Ocean and where they roost in trees (see below) using the thin branches to perch on.The name booby derives from the Spanish word bobo which translates as foolish or clown, referring to their clumsy movements on land such as when they perch in trees..

An adult Red footed Booby in The Seychelles

The news of the booby's chance discovery caused a sensation amongst birders the length and breadth of Britain but as it was flying and at sea it was thought most likely it would never be seen again. However to great surprise and relief it was re-discovered on the 14th of August, perched at the very top of the Bishop Rock Lighthouse which lies four miles to the west of St Mary's. the largest island in the Isles of Scilly. Over the subsequent days it became apparent that the booby had decided the lighthouse would do very nicely as a place to perch and relax between fishing sorties and there it has, for the most part remained. Birders began chartering boats and trying to find accommodation on St Mary's as the booby's now regular routine made twitching it eminently possible. 

Arrangements were made to lay on boats to ferry the hordes of birders arriving on the island from the mainland and wishing to go out to see the booby and our regular twitching group consisting of myself, Mark, Adrian and Les made plans to go and see it too, although most of us had to delay until Friday the 18th of August because of our various domestic and work commitments. 

In the end Mark went on Wednesday with another colleague Andy as they had  chartered a boat from Penzance directly to the lighthouse whereas the rest of us had to settle to drive through the night on Thursday and take the Friday morning Scillonian, sailing from Penzance to St Mary's and then a charter boat to the Bishop Rock Lighthouse that same afternoon. Worryingly a violent storm, promising high winds and rain was predicted to hit the Scillies on Friday afternoon.We would have to take a chance and hope.A situation all too familiar to twitching folk. 

The Scillonian at St Mary's Quay, Isles of Scilly

When we left Penzance there was no intimation of a storm but as we arrived at St Mary's the rain began and the wind rose but not enough to deter us from taking our charter out to the lighthouse. We had a backup plan that if on Friday we failed to see the booby, we would camp on St Mary's for the subsequent two nights and try again on Saturday and if that failed give it one more go on Sunday although I had to leave, at vast expense, by helicopter, early on Saturday afternoon as I had a prior engagement back home that I could not get out of.

The worst of the weather hit us as our charter  boat The Seahorse  headed for the lighthouse.Fortunately it had a large cabin where we could all shelter as wind driven rain lashed the boat and huge waves tossed us up and down. It was nigh on impossible at times to stand and one had to cling to anything available to keep upright.After what seemed a very long time we reached the vicinity of the lighthouse and venturing out into the wind and rain scanned the top of the lighthouse, only a mere 49 metres above us! That was when one could stand upright for long enough. Waves broke with explosions of white surf against the rocks on which the lighthouse stood. It was purgatory as we were thrown around the wave tossed boat and needless to say the booby was nowhere to be seen on its regular perch at the very top of the lighthouse.Well what bird in its right mind, even an ocean going seabird, would perch exposed in 50mph gusts of wind and lashing rain?

I was tired, wet and now thoroughly miserable.All of us knew the game was up,.the bird was not here. We had dipped but we were reluctant to leave. It was almost as if we couldn't quite believe we had failed but after endlessly circling the lighthouse, ludicrously hoping the booby might by some miracle fly in we had to accept the inevitable. 

Rain,wind and no booby!

We vowed to come out tomorrow morning to try again but needed to arrange to charter another boat as The Seahorse had other commitments.

Back on land we headed for The Garrison camp site to check in to our nice cosy four man tent pre-booked by Adrian. At least we could dry off and then retire to the pub. But hold on, disaster loomed as we found the camp site had screwed up our booking and released our tent to someone else.Words were spoken and in the end we were allocated two very small single person tents and a double, equally miniscule tent.

I can find somewhere for them out of the wind, the lady manager cheerily informed us as if this would placate four very tired and fractious birders.

Obviously feeling guilty about her error she offered to put up the tents for us and duly erected them in the howling wind and rain, which was not easy and then the two single occupant tents were found to be faulty so replacements had to be found.More delay ensued and more words were spoken. Eventually the replacements were erected by which time we were all soaked to the skin..

I won't charge you for the inflatable matttresses said the lady.

I felt like saying she should not be charging for anything but remained silent.

There was nothing we could do..It was the tents or nothing. Martin was by now contemplating sleeping in the nearby shed as was I. Needless to say the mattresses needed inflating and then had to be manhandled for a hundred metres across the camp site in the raging wind.You can guess the rest but eventually with help from other campers we subdued the mattresses and got them into the tents.Two deflated in the night but by then we were past caring.

We retired to The Atlantic pub having put our wet clothes in the campsite's tumble drier. A nice meal with a beer or two and some convivial conversation soothed our troubles away. Via various texts I arranged a charter on The Falcon for 1030am tomorrow although all other charter boats had decided not to go out on Saturday due to the weather and a heavy four metre swell.

I was reluctant to leave the pub knowing what awaited me but eventually I had to head back to the camp site in the dark, dodging water filled potholes on the way..

I still cannot speak about the night that followed in the tent so let's leave it at the fact the tumble drier failed to dry our clothes and the night in the tent was sheer hell as wind and rain slapped the tent around and I lay on a half inflated mattress wishing I could be anywhere but here. Of course if I had seen the booby  it would all have felt so different.

Morning could not come soon enough for me and as soon as possible I was out of the tent, still in the clothes I had slept in..The rain had gone but the wind remained very strong although it now brought with it pleasant sunshine. A coffee from the Visitor Centre helped me to feel slightly more in touch with humanity and then I went birding with Martin around The Garrison. We found a Northern Wheatear on the football pitch, a Common Whitethroat and a Blackcap in the surrounding bushes but the best came last when we discovered not one but two Pied Flycatchers, my first for the year, zipping around a copse near the tennis courts.

Back at the campsite Les was eulogising over the very tame House Sparrows, which he does not see at his home in Essex. The sparrows were looking for crumbs around our tents as a Swallow family rode the wind above the trees.

At 1030am we presented ourselves at St Mary's Quay and The Falcon duly arrived. I half expected the skipper to tell us it was off but he was happy to proceed, of us set off for the Bishop Rock.The Falcon is a fast and powerful boat and despite the heavy swell, after twenty minutes we were only a mile from the lighthouse but the seas, due to the tide had become progressively wilder and more threatening.The boat was rising and falling alarmingly in the huge swell and eventually the skipper turned to us and suggested it would be too risky to approach the lighthouse any closer. So near and yet so far. I looked longingly at the lighthouse We turned back which was the sensible and safest thing to do.With this unanimous decision my chance of seeing the booby had evaporated.Tired from lack of sleep, depressed from not seeing the booby I slipped into neutral and back on land, at three pm flew in the helicopter to Penzance and collecting my car set off on the five hour drive home.I just wanted to forget about it all and return to some form of normality

I had failed but it did not seem to matter too much as I had done my best but been confounded by the weather.Sometimes you just have to accept it is not going to be your day.

The next morning my friends, still on St Mary's, joined another charter to the lighthouse.The weather was fine and sunny and the  sea calm. They saw the booby which had returned to the lighthouse with the change in the weather. It was a bitter pill to swallow

Images and comment on the various birding WhatsApp groups I am a member of, relayed the news about their joyous triumph and I could just about manage a wry smile at my misfortune but I was already scheming about a return to Scilly.

I had to return.No question but currently was utterly physically exhausted and in no fit state to go anywhere for a couple of days. On Wednesday I had an important hospital appointment that could not be missed.Thus Thursday was the first day possible to return to Scilly.

After the hospital appointment I managed to get virtually the last available day trip booking on The Scillonian for Thursday, a bargain at £35.00 return. Remembering how tired I was after my failed first attempt to see the booby I booked myself into a room with a normal bed at the Lands End YHA for Thursday night.There was no way I was going to camp ever again.

Apparently but by no means definitely a charter boat would be meeting The Scillonian each day when it docked at St Mary's Quay and take birders out to see the booby.although the degree of uncertainty and lack of communication about this was yet another addition to my already sky high state of anxiety.The booby was currently being seen each day and reported via a special WhatsApp group Red footed Booby-Scilly which served as a useful source of updates on the situation, so well done Sam Viles of Birdguides for organising this.The group also doubled as a forum for birders yet to see the booby, to manifest their anxiety with endless questions and comments, both sensible and otherwise  

Surely the most bizarre question to date being - Do you need a passport!

I left home at 1am on Thursday morning and tried to ignore the thought of the 270 miles that lay between me and Penzance. Inevitably the M5 motorway was closed for repairs around Bristol and so I and a snaking line of lorries took to ill lit secondary roads by way of a diversion. Motorway closures are now a regular additional hazard to night driving and there is no real way around it.To add to the problem the yellow diversion signs are at times ambiguous or not even in evidence. My solution is to just follow the lorries!

I arrived in Penzance at 5am in semi darkness and light rain  that was predicted to give way to sunny periods from around six in the morning..Having arrived ahead of schedule I managed to secure a free parking place on the seafront. Overcome with tiredness I shut my eyes and awoke forty minutes later to find it was now daylight and Penzance was coming alive.Some intrepid ladies were already swimming and laughing in the sea off the promenade

I needed tea and a bite to eat. Gathering myself together  I walked to the Harbour Cafe where a cheery welcome and two large mugs of tea and some toast and marmalade dispelled the memory of my long, lonely night drive and made life bearable once more.I remained in the cafe until 8am and then walked to The Scillonian reception on the quayside and joined a long queue to check in for my three hour trip to St Mary's.Being school holiday time and with an impending Bank Holiday, The Scillonian was fully booked  for not only today but right through to Sunday.

I got a seat, in the open, at the back of the ship and surrounded by dogs. children, birders and holiday makers, awaited the ship's departure at 9.15am on what was turning out to be a pleasantly calm and sunny morning.

The trip was its usual mixture of long periods seeing nothing interspersed with sudden bursts of intense bird and cetacean activity. Cory's and Manx Shearwaters were regular and there were frequent sightings of Common Dolphins. leaping out of the water or speeding under the ship. Everyone wants to see dolphins and surges of humanity went from one side of the ship to the other whenever some were sighted, with many of my fellow passengers optimistically attempting to record the dolphins on their phones.

Gradually, as the ship got nearer and nearer to St Mary's, I became more anxious as the moment of destiny loomed. I knew I had but one chance and this was it. I could not stay on Scilly as there was no accommodation and there was not a chance to return from the mainland, even if I wanted to, until the following Monday due to The Scillonian being fully booked.. Make or break. It certainly did not help when reports came through that a helicopter had been seen flying around the Bishop Rock Lighthouse this very morning which surely would scare the booby and persuade the bird to find somewhere quieter. The day before it was reported someone had apparently flown a drone over the booby and flushed it although there was no proof this had happened.

There was nothing I could do but try to put all this negative news to the back of my mind.Dick Filby the owner of RBA (Rare Bird Alert) was on board and he took the names of all the birders on the ship who were intending to go and see the booby. He then relayed this information to Joe Pender at St Mary's.telling us there was no need to worry about a boat being available to go to the lighthouse as Joe with his boat The Sapphire would be waiting for us on arrival.There were twenty nine of us and the charge for the trip would be £21.00 payable, by cash or card on board The Sapphire.  

We arrived at St Mary's on time and there was Joe waiting for us. Once everyone was on board The Sapphire we got underway. sailing out into a reasonably calm sea bathed in sunshine. It was very pleasant sitting at the back of the boat, warmed by the sun and listening to the chugging ot the boat's engine  while looking for large shearwaters. Joe would announce,over the tannoy, every sighting of a 'large shear', usually Corys and everyone would leap up with camera poised to try and get a picture with varying success, as the boat pitched and rolled across the sea.

It takes about forty five minutes to get out to the lighthouse and as The Sapphire churned its roller coaster course through the waves the tension began to escalate amongst all twenty nine of us.  As we got ever nearer to the lighthouse more Cory's Sheawaters, large, long winged and languid  came close to the boat before skimming effortlessly away over the waves, providing a temporary distraction from our concern about the booby. Everyone was very jolly, chatting and laughing but no one was fooling anyone, the outward cheerfulness was disguising the nervousness and stress we all felt about whether the booby would be on the lighthouse or not.

We would soon know.The expectation and anxiety was almost unbearable. What if it was not there?

Joe and Dick in the wheelhouse would be the first to see  the booby as we headed for that lonely pillar of granite.. I leaned over the side of the boat to look forward and was surprised to see we were closer to the lighthouse than I thought..I could see birders near the wheelhouse scanning the top of the lighthouse but no word of affirmation came back from them.Someone took a long range image of the netting where the bird liked to perch and proclaimed he could see the bird in his image but we required official confirmation.

A minute later Joe announced over the tannoy that the booby was perched on the lighthouse. A huge cheer of relief went up, arms flew into the air in exultation and smiles cracked  tense and anxious faces. . 

A spell of intense activity commenced as everyone checked settings on cameras, positioned themselves on the boat and waited as Joe slowed the engine and manoeuvred The Sapphire towards the lighthouse and the rocks.

We came in gently, initially viewing the bird from distance, when it appeared as a small dark lump, an aberration on the wire safety netting protecting the top of the lighthouse.

Joe moved the boat closer and closer.We  were now very near to the lighthouse, the boat in the lee of the wind but still bucking as the waves ran under it to break against the rocks. Below us was 43 metres of sea. I braced myself against a bulwark with feet jammed againt a wooden seat and lay almost on my back to take endless photos of the booby perched far above me.Frankly the distance and lack of stability were testing the limits of my camera and lens. Mark has a much bigger lens and has allowed me to use a couple of his images from last Wednesday to illustrate this blog for which I am very grateful.

c Mark
The booby was very unhelpfully perched facing away from us so getting a decent image was nigh on impossible. My best efforts are below. I was not too put out as the main point of my being here was to see the bird and here it was large as life. 

It was doubly pleasurable to see it after all the problems encountered on my earlier attempt. The booby commenced preening and I could clearly see the bird's huge, webbed feet wrapped around the mesh of wires at the very top of the lighthouse. Otherwise its plumage was typical of an immature bird, being a messy mixture of various shades of greyish brown on its upperparts and dull white on its underparts, head and breast. The bill was bluish white and pale pink at its base with a noticeable black tip and the large feet orange red. Obviously in moult, it spent quite some time preening before tucking its large bill into its back feathers and going to sleep.


The height of the lighthouse, even more impressive close to and the booby perched at the very top meant any photo with my lens and camera was going to be of record shot quality only.and so it proved.

The Sapphire's engines revved as Joe manoeuvred the boat to try and cover all the angles.Dare I say, it was almost as thrilling to be bucking around on the waves under the towering structure of the lighthouse with the waves crashing against its base. I looked up at its immensity, on a day when the sea was relatively benign, but the power of the ocean was all too clear and our vulnerability equally apparent.

The Bishop Rock Lighthouse was constructed in 1843 and is 49 metres high It is built on a ledge of rock 45 metres long and 16 metres wide.The surrounding sea has a depth of around 43 metres here and below it lie in excess of ninety vessels that have foundered on the rocks.The lighthouse also has the distinction of marking the westernmost point of Britain. Beyond is nothing but the Atlantic Ocean and then Canada.

We floated around the lighthouse for about thirty minutes and then moved further out to sea to look for other seabirds. Personally I would have preferred to have remained at the lighthouse as, for me the booby was the whole point of the trip. Cory and Great Shearwters are all well and good but over the past couple of weeks I had seen plenty of both whereas I had only seen one Red footed Booby. 

I was philosophical.Why worry. I could relax now as I had seen the booby and could join my friends in celebrating the fact.. It was of no consequence if others wished to go in search of shearwaters and so I happily watched the endless patterns of churning water in the wake as we sailed away. Being so tired it was a pleasure to sit with my thoughts at the rear of the boat and a sea of incomparable blue all around.

One of Joe's young assistants came to the back of the boat with a loaf and began throwing pieces of bread into the wake to attract the gulls following us, the plan being that the gulls would in turn arouse the curiosity of any large shearwaters or petrels nearby. 

It was only a partial success but a few Cory's and a couple of Great Shearwters put in brief appearances as did a couple of Storm Petrels. After thirty minutes it was time to head back to St Mary's in order for those of us on a day return to connect with The Scillonian. For the forty five minute journey I sat content and at peace, enjoying the sensation of being at sea below open skies, in my own private world.Some of my fellow birders chatted, while others slept, lulled by the waves.

It was done and dusted.I had succeeded against the considerable odds ranged against me.

The Red footed Booby was species 533 on my list of birds seen in Britain.




  1. But... are you going back for the Brown Booby?

    1. Thankfully no as I saw the Brown Booby at Kynance Cove on the Lizard in September 2019

  2. Brilliant read of a memorable twitch, if mainly for the wrong reasons. Very similar to my own day-trip to see the Booby apart from, so far, your extra persistence at going again and connecting successfully. Well done.