Cherokee Village, Arkansas — Lake Thunderbird
Monday, September 12, 2022 — 10:20 am
On Friday, a message came through on ARBIRD (the Arkansas birder e-mail group) that a Brown Booby was seen on Lake Thunderbird. The bird was first seen on September 3, so it had been hanging around a while. Lake Thunderbird is in northeast Arkansas, three-and-a-half hours from London, so if I was going to see it, I would have to make a day of it. The guy who posted didn’t seem overly confident, so I waited for more news before I made the trip
Birders continued to see it, but it didn’t seem to be generating a lot of enthusiasm. I woke up groggy and unmotivated on Sunday and decided not to make the trip. But to incentivize myself I decided that if anyone saw it on Sunday, I’d drive up on Monday. They did, and I did.
It’s 173 miles on Arkansas roads, although it’s only 115 as the crow flies. I made it to the spot on the lake where people have been seeing the booby without incident. There was a huge sign saying that Lake Thunderbird is a private lake for residents only, but I didn’t see any signs relating to the parking lot, so I parked and walked out on the dam.
If a Brown Booby was seen in Northern Illinois or Central Colorado, it would be easy to find. Just go to the spot and look for the 15-30 birders staring through scopes. But there were no birders at Lake Thunderbird when I arrived. I scanned the lake, expecting that it would be easy to spot a bird as large as a booby if it was flying around. (I found out later this was decidedly not the case.) Some of the photos on eBird from over the weekend showed the booby perched in a pine tree. The only pines I could see along the entire section of lake in my view was a small grove on the far shore.
I had left my scope in the car, so I was looking with my binoculars. I’m not sure I would have found anything except that the bird ruffled its wings and the motion caught my attention. When I focused on the spot, I could see a slender bird in the shade, dark against the background of pines. It was facing away from me, but at that distance I thought I’d probably found the booby. I took a few pictures with my camera and confirmed my i.d. I walked further west along the dam which gave me a better angle on the bird and got me a little closer.
It was booby-shaped, with a long yell0w bill and yellow legs. When it preened, I could see the white belly. Once or twice, it stretched out a wing and gave me a good look at the long, slender shape of it.
I walked back to my car to get my scope and met another birder, a woman named Tamalyn who had drive up from Heber Springs. She walked back out on the dam with me and I was able to show her the bird. It was still in the same place, looking around actively and preening now and again. Finally it took off and headed west. I hoped it would fly a circuit around the lake and give me some good, close looks, but after circling around the far end a few times, then making a quick circle to the east, it landed back on the branch. I didn’t get any worthwhile photos of it in flight because it was very hard to track against the trees on the far shore—and it very rarely flew above the tops of the trees.
Over the next hour and a half, the bird made three more flights. None of them brought it any closer to me. Mostly it circled around a small inlet near its favorite tree. After each flight it landed on the same branch within a few feet of where I first saw it. I managed to get a photo of it taking off on its fourth flight.
The rest of these photos are stills from a video I took of that fourth flight. It dipped down near the water once like it was about to do one of its characteristic plunge dives but it pulled up before it got to the surface. I never saw it touch the water.
Brown Booby is a pelagic bird that is “rare but regular” off southern Florida and southern California, but according to eBird, lately it’s been showing up on inland lakes around the U.S. and even Canada. I was surprised to see that a few have been spotted in Arkansas in recent years. It wasn’t on my radar as a possibility in the state—or anywhere else for that matter—and certainly not perched in a pine tree. I made a significant effort to see it—I left the cabin at 6:30 am and didn’t get back until 4:15—but I’m glad I went. I couldn’t help wondering if the bird recognized that its surroundings didn’t look much like the open ocean.
As I was leaving another woman (named Betty, I think) walked out on the dam. I told her where she could see the bird (which was once again perched), and later saw that she’d given me credit. So far as eBird is concerned, those two women and I were the only ones who went there to see it today.