Red-footed booby at Muriwai

Red-footed booby
Red-footed booby approaching to land at the Muriwai gannet colony. Taken with a Canon 1D Mark IV, EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM, 1/1600 s at f5.0, ISO 200.

It’s always exciting to see a new species of bird for the first time, and especially when it is something as stunning as a red-footed booby. Red-footed boobies (Sula sula) are usually found in tropical seas, but a few days ago one was seen at the Australasian gannet colony at Muriwai (near Auckland) and soon reported on BirdingNZ.net. This is the first time this species has been seen on mainland New Zealand, and with deteriorating weather forecast I decided to make the 6-hour return drive and try my luck. Vagrant birds are unpredictable — some settling contentedly for months, others disappearing as quickly as the appeared. If I was a tropical seabird venturing to New Zealand for the summer I’d be a rather disappointed with what I found this year, and would turn around and head north quick smart. If I was going to do it, I figured I better not wait.

I arrived at the Muriwai gannet colony with a few hours of daylight left and found a space on the viewing platform among a growing contingent of birders. Over the previous two nights the booby had arrived late in the evening then settled on one of a just a few suitable branches for the night. Studying the flight paths of the many gannets gave me a good idea of the flight path the booby was likely to take, so I was able to pick a spot that give me a good sun angle and clear view while shoulder-to-shoulder with other photographers and birders. Right on schedule at 7 pm the booby arrived and was welcomed by much excitement and rattling shutters as it did three circuits to check the landing site, showing it’s stunning vivid red feet for which it gets its name, before settling on the same branch as the previous night.

It was difficult to get a clear shot of the bird once it landed, due to the restrictions of a small, crowded clifftop viewing platform and photobombing gannets, but over the next hour and a half the crowd thinned and the light improved. The booby was only about 10 m away, so most people seemed to think it strange I was using such a big lens, but with a focal length of 840 mm I was able to find a couple of angles where I could isolate the booby from the gannets and other distractions by framing tightly on its stunningly coloured face and feet. The photo below is one of my favourites, which I got when it briefly showed a red foot to scratch its head. You can see more photos in my new red-footed booby gallery. Chasing after rare vagrants can be a gamble, but on this occasion I think it payed off.

Red-footed booby
A red-footed booby preening. The booby spent most of the time preening, often facing away or obscured by gannets. For a brief moment it turning its head into the light and showed a bright red foot. Taken with a Canon 1D Mark IV, EF600mm f/4L IS USM +1.4x, 1/800 s at f8, ISO 400.