Columnist 

Brown booby excites Arkansas birders


Its name draws forth snickers, but not from enthusiastic birders.

From across Arkansas and from all other the nation, interest has soared in an unusual bird far from its home territory.

It is a brown booby, normally a resident of tropical oceans, and this lone bird has set up residence in small Lake Norrell west of Little Rock. The Lake Norrell bird is the first time a brown booby has been known to visit Arkansas.

The Lake Norrell bird first appeared Aug. 9 sitting on the dock at Ken and Vickie Martin’s lakeside home.

“Ken came in and said there was a weird looking bird on the dock. Looks like a duck,” Vickie Martin said.

They took photos, and Dottie Boyles, who works with Vickie at the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, identified it after consulting with other bird fans and with field guides.

Word spread among the birding community like wildfire. The Martins had guests by the dozens, and they were welcomed. Neighbors Chris and Jamie Peach were quick to take visitors by boat for close-up look at the booby.

“Over the weekend, I started keeping a guest book, and we had about 150 people from seven states. One was from Brooklyn,” Vickie Martin said. “Now we are told a lady is flying in from Oregon to see the bird, and a man is driving down from Minnesota to see it. Yes, there have been a lot of people at our place, but these birders are the nicest, politest people you’ll find, There has been absolutely no litter.”

The Lake Norrell booby has not just moved in on the Martins. It travels around the lake, perching on boat houses, docks, a water control structure. Sometimes it sits patiently and lets the lookers approach to within a few feet. At other times, it puts some distance between it and the humans.

The Martins and the Lake Norrell visitors describe the brown booby as about the size of a mallard duck but shaped differently. The booby is more slender, sleeker and with longer wings.

Bird expert Joe Neal of Fayetteville visited Lake Norrell and said, “In good light, we had wonderful study of large pink bill, light green gular (throat area), blue eye and eye patch, big yellowish-green webbed feet, sleek dark feathers. A healthy look. Here in non-tropical Arkansas, life seems to be working. In saying so, I don’t know scientifically that shad and perch are proper fare for an oceanic wanderer, only that the bird looks good: healthy-looking feathers, strong dives.”

The species lives in the Caribbean Sea, its nearest home area to Arkansas. But brown boobys are found in the Pacific Ocean, too, from Hawaii to Australia and Indonesia and on the western coasts of Mexico, Central America and South America. Its cousins are the blue-footed booby, red-footed booby and masked booby.

Bird experts attribute the name of the several species, booby, to an old Spanish word, “bobo,” meaning stupid. Early Spanish explorers had boobys land on their ships, and they caught and ate some of the boobys.

In the last two weeks, other lone brown boobys have appeared in eastern Pennsylvania and in coastal New Jersey – farther from the tropics than Arkansas but closer to an ocean.

Lake Norrell covers 280 acres and is a backup water supply for the city of Benton. From the Little Rock area, it is reached by Colonel Glenn Road and Lawson Road west from Interstate 430.

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Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at jhmosby@cyberback.com.