It tipped its 62 inch wing-span as it made a loop over the water at the foot of the dam, and then plunged straight down into the water like a torpedo. I was watching a first or second year Blue-footed Booby hunt for its breakfast – an exciting treat at any time, but more special since this was the first time that the species had been seen in New Mexico. They easily can be seen off the west coast of Mexico or by a pelagic trip out of San Diego – but never at Conchas Lake State Park!
I was alerted to its presence from a posting by Cole Wolf on the AZ/NM Rare Bird Alert. According to his report, “We arrived at 0615 (Aug. 16) and scoped from the dam for over an hour but were unable to locate the bird. We went north to check along the Canadian River and finally John (Parmeter) spotted the bird flying downriver near the marina at about 0800. It stayed in sight for about half an hour…”
“Do you want to go see the Booby tomorrow?” Mary Lou e-mailed me. It was tempting, but I had a prior commitment. I hoped that it would stick around for a few days. However, you never know with a stray.
Mary Lou dragged her husband along and saw it at 8 a.m. on Tues. It continued and was seen on Wed. I set my alarm for 4:30 and was out of the house by 5:00 on Thursday morning. For quite a while, it was just me and the truckers heading east on I-40. Normal people were still in bed.
I exited off the freeway just before Tucumcari and headed north. The periodic red mesas beckoned and the occasional windmill signaled the presence of an isolated homestead. It was a part of New Mexico I had never visited before. Shortly before the small town of Conchas, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher settled onto a power line. Ordinarily, I would have backed up to take a closer look, but I had seen plenty of them before and was on a mission to see a life bird.
When I entered the State Park just before 8 a.m., I used Cole’s information, plus the directions in the New Mexico Bird Finding Guide, to zero in on what I thought was the correct location. Heading north, the road passes behind the bottom of the dam. There was no sign of the booby flying over the river. At the park headquarters, I looped back and headed down towards the lake on a rutted dirt road just before the dam and parked near the edge of the lake.
Two Killdeer greeted me before continuing their foraging. There was no sign of the booby. I got out my scope to be ready. A flock of about 15 White-faced Ibis cruised over the lake and an unidentified tern zipped briefly into view and then disappeared.
I noticed a vehicle stopped on the top of the dam – a birder for sure, I thought, and headed back up to the road, just as the car pulled off the north end of the dam. I paused briefly on the way back to admire a small flock of Lark Buntings, the male still in breeding plumage. When I emerged from a much-needed pit stop, the car was heading towards me and then stopped.
“Are you a birder?” he asked.
“Yes, I am looking for the booby.” I responded.
“Follow me,” he beckoned, and we drove up to and half-way across the dam where we stopped and got out – despite the signs that admonish drivers not to stop on the narrow one-way road across the top of the dam.
“There it is,” he pointed. Sure enough, the large bird with its distinctive bill was circling right below us. I could see it with my naked eyes and then began to watch it through my binoculars.
“I spent the night sleeping in my car at the south boat ramp,” Jim Black told me. “I’ve been watching it since 6:15. I came out on Mon. and spent 2 hours, but didn’t see it. When I read that it was still here, I decided to try again and be here at first light.”
About that time I decided that I would go back and get my camera. But then the booby disappeared, so I didn’t get any photos. You will have to enjoy the photos Cole posted on his Flickr site.
By then it was 9:15. Still time to drive back by way of Las Vegas and join the Thursday Birders at Villanueva. They had a poor day at Villanueva State Park and were just getting ready to head back when I arrived. I was glad I had made the choice to go to Conchas.