Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Mystery Bird Photographed in an Eagle’s Talons in Port Townsend

Tropical bird spotted at North Beach was far from its normal habitat

A Bald Eagle with a brown booby in its grasp. Credit: Tim Lawson

Sometimes it starts with a simple question. “What is in the talons of that Bald Eagle?” OK, maybe that’s not a simple question. Talons, Bald Eagle, what? 

Recently Tim Lawson, one of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s longtime supporters, sent us his remarkable photos, trying to confirm what he had captured digitally. He had a hunch, but the outrageousness of the idea that it may be a vagrant tropical bird needed some backup, so he asked some of the community’s leading birders for their thoughts.

This avian puzzle rippled out from local experts to regional specialists. Emails were sent, photos shared and carefully studied. Turns out, Tim’s hunch was right, it was a tropical bird that had wandered thousands of miles from its range: a Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster*).

In the Americas, you would more likely find a Brown Booby off the coast of Mexico, or flying over the Caribbean. Australia is also home for Brown Booby. But the Strait of Juan de Fuca in February is extremely unusual.

Tim described the bird as “Brown neck, mantle, back and wings. Medium to large bird. Long yellow beak, large yellow feet, long tail.” 

A brown booby (source:

Audubon’s online guide says, “In North America [the Brown Booby] is seen most often near the Dry Tortugas, Florida,” with the only currently known nesting sites in Hawaii. This bird indeed lived up to the term “vagrant” defined by Audubon, “straying well outside of regular ecological range.”

Matt Bartels of the Washington Bird Records Committee replied to Tim’s submission, saying that it was unusual, if not as rare as it used to be, and posed the question, “Was it dead before the eagle got to it?”

Finding Brown Boobys in Washington state is fairly unusual but not unheard of. Apparently 3-4 are reported each year. One was reported in November 2020 in Willapa Bay by a crew harvesting oysters. It died with a completely empty stomach. 

Other Booby species have been recorded in Washington and Oregon. In early August 2006, a Blue-Footed Booby showed up in Skagit County, while another was retrieved a few days later from the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River in Oregon. It is now preserved in Tacoma’s Slater Museum collection.

We had experienced a cold snap the week that Tim took his photos. Freezing cold makes life for a tropical bird extremely difficult. Could that have stunned it before the Eagle hit? Or had it been a stow-away aboard a cargo ship heading this way from southern climes? We will never know.

Thanks to Tim Lawson for sharing his photos and for asking the question in the first place: What is that bird in the Eagle’s talons?

*Sula is the Norwegian word for gannet, and leucogaster is derived from the ancient Greek leuko = white and gaster = belly. Brown, masked, red-footed and blue-footed boobys are all relatives of the northern gannet and known for their spectacular, almost splashless plunge-dives into schools of small fish. None of these sulids are usually found in the Salish Sea. 

Written by PTMSC Community Science Coordinator Betsy Carlson.

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