Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper
Photo Carole Green

The red-footed booby at Mallydams Photo Carole Green

Unexpected arrival: a red-footed booby

HOT’s Chandra Masoliver takes up the story of the red-footed booby that landed on St Leonard’s beach on 4 September. It was sent to the East Sussex Wildlife Rescue and Ambulance Service (WRAS) and then on to Mallydams Wood Wildlife Centre in Fairlight, where they are hoping it will survive. Chandra had the good fortune of seeing this very un-English bird because she works as a volunteer at Mallydams.

When Paddington Bear left Peru and headed for England as a stowaway on the SS Karenia, it was a choice he made on the advice of his Aunt Lucy who had already taught him English. He came suitably attired in a red hat, with five jars of marmalade to last him the journey.

However, this red-footed booby with a blue beak made no such choice when it ended up on our wind-blown cold and rainy shore, so different from its home. It flopped down exhausted and shivering on the beach of St Leonards – and immediately went to sleep. Its only good fortune was to land right in front of Gail Cohen, who recognized it from her time in the Galapagos and immediately called the rescue service. Because of its red legs, blue bill and throat pouch tinged with pink, it is probable that it came from the Caribbean, not the Galapagos, as was first thought.

The red-footed booby at Mallydams Photo by Carole Green

Photo by Carole Green

Trevor Weeks, founder of the WRAS, suggested it had hitch-hiked after landing on a ship at sea during very stormy weather. On 5 September, the booby was transferred to the RSPCA centre at Mallydams Woods, which has specialist sea-bird facilities; they care for countless other breeds of birds, as well as seals, foxes, hedgehogs and mice, in fact almost any sick or injured creature.

When the booby first arrived at Mallydams, Barbara Watson, Centre Veterinary Surgeon, said it was very thin and dehydrated and was given a solution with electrolytes, vitamins and minerals to try and stabilize it. She took X-rays to be sure it had not swallowed a hook or broken any bones; fortunately it had not. A healthy bird would weigh between 900 – 1,200 grams; this one came in at 950 grams and went down to 850 grams.

When I saw it a week later on Monday 12 September, it was just being transferred from a small cubicle to a larger one. I saw one person hold it, while another pushed six sprats down its throat. It uttered some very harsh croaks, but swallowed them whole. Richard Thompson, Wildlife Rehabilitation Manager, said for the moment they are just maintaining the bird’s condition – and it is amazing that it is still alive. He described it as “a very sick bird a long way from home”. However, by 16 September, Richard said the bird was taking fish well by hand and is much stronger.

The Latin name of the booby is Sula sula, of the family Sulidae, the smallest of the booby and gannet family. It is curious why this bird got called a booby; probably the word derives from the Spanish, ‘bobo’, meaning ‘fool’; hence the booby prize and the booby trap. But a bird’s name? Some suggest that sailors gave it this nickname because of its habit of landing on deck, an easy prey to hungry sailors fed up with dry biscuits and weevils. Indeed when Captain Bligh of the HMS Bounty was cast adrift by mutineers, it is said he survived on booby flesh.

Boobies are common in the tropics and they can live for more than twenty years. They are gregarious birds, and in the breeding season hundreds of them gather in colonies on coastal regions, especially islands and mangroves. The male performs a marvellous ritual dance with his red feet when courting, at the same time he displays his blue throat and makes harsh squawks. They build nests made of sticks in trees and shrubs, occasionally on the ground. The single egg laid is incubated by both parents, who may stay together for several seasons.

When they are not breeding, boobies spend most of their life at sea. Like many creatures out of their natural environment, the booby can look awkward on land, and they are clumsy in their take-off and landing. However, with their long beaks and lean aerodynamic bodies, they are powerful and agile fliers and spectacular divers, plunging into the sea at high speed, closing their nostrils and wrapping their long wings around their bodies.

Photo with permission Emre Yedidag

Photo with permission Emre Yedidag

This makes them versatile in their methods of fishing for food. They have impeccable timing when catching a flying fish in the air, and at night they can dive for squid, visible to their sharp eyes because of the squid’s phosphorescence. Unfortunately, the fishing industry is making their food scarce, and their shore-line trees and shrubs are being destroyed to make way for the ever-encroaching human habitat.

Although boobies can range for over 90 miles in search of food, they are definitely not migratory birds, so it is sad to think of this booby stuck in England. Normally the creatures at Mallydams are released back into the wild with meticulous timing and awareness of a suitable environment, but because this booby of uncertain sex is an adult with old and worn wing feathers Richard Thompson says UK release is not possible. They anticipate that if he/she continues to improve, they will look to send it to Pelican Harbour Rescue Centre in Florida for the final part of the rescue process. In fact there has been an offer from British Airways to fly the booby over there!

Mallydams Wood is a charity, registered under the RSPCA, no. 219099, reliant on public donations. It is run by staff and volunteers and is kept impeccably clean. It is normally not open to the public so that traumatized animals can recover in peace, with expert care. Telephone 0300 123 0723.

Check out Mallydams Wood’s Wish List on Amazon.

Red-footed booby Photo by Carol Green

Red-footed booby Photo by Carol Green


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Posted 13:02 Tuesday, Sep 20, 2016 In: The HOT Planet


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  1. Michael Gould

    Fascinating article, Chandra; and what a beautiful bird! Thank you!


    Comment by Michael Gould — Sunday, Oct 2, 2016 @ 11:22

  2. ms. doubtfire

    Three cheers for Mallydams! A wonderful charity which merits all the support we can offer….here’s hoping the Booby makes a full recovery and finds a new home across the pond.

    Comment by ms. doubtfire — Tuesday, Sep 20, 2016 @ 17:53

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