Blue-footed booby makes unprecedented appearance at Conchas Lake

By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico

Bird watchers are migrating to Conchas Lake for the rare chance to catch a glimpse of a blue-footed booby.

That’s an ocean bird, for the uninitiated.

First spotted Aug. 15, bird enthusiasts speculate the juvenile bird got caught up in a storm and landed in New Mexico, though park officials are not so certain in the absence of any unusual weather.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Rob Yaksich, State Parks instructional coordinator.

“It’s possible that they have visited other lakes in New Mexico but no one has noticed them — perhaps dismissing them as a cormorant or other water bird.”

The presence of the booby — which typically hunts over deep parts of the ocean — would be a rarity for New Mexico, said Chip Clouse, American Birding Association outreach coordinator.

Clouse decided on impulse Tuesday afternoon to rent a car and drive from Colorado Springs to Conchas Lake to try and catch a glimpse of the rare bird.

“It’s my birthday (Wednesday) and this is my birthday present to myself. I’m not even going home for a change of clothes,” Clouse said.

“You make the decision to go based on whether it’s a one-day-wonder, and it’s been there now over a week and has been seen at least every day by a birder. That lets me know that it’s a pretty good risk to make a 10-hour round-trip drive.”

The blue booby, a large ocean bird with distinctive blue feet, had never been seen in New Mexico when Bob Mumford, Army Corps of Engineers ranger, spotted the bird while on patrol at Conchas Lake, a news release from Conchas Lake State Park said.

The name “booby” comes from the Spanish word bobo, which means fool or jester. Boobies are clumsy on the land, and like other seabirds can be very tame, according to an article in “All At Sea” magazine. Although they are powerful and agile fliers, they are particularly clumsy in takeoffs and landings; they use strong winds and high perches to assist their takeoffs.

The sighting in New Mexico was posted online and birders showed up the following day with spotting scopes and cameras, the release said.

Since then, bird watchers from Oklahoma, Santa Fe, Denver and Deming have visited the lake.

“This is an unusual but exciting visitor for our park,” said Dan Rand, Conchas Lake State Park superintendent. “It just shows that there is always something new to meet the eye at New Mexico state parks.”

Glenn Walbek — a hardware repairman for a Colorado cellular company and bird enthusiast who has logged sightings of 614 different species — drove all night Saturday with friends hoping to see the bird.

They weren’t disappointed, he said, and he even managed to snap a few photos of the bird as it crossed the lake in front of them.

“As far as rarity goes for me, it’s got to be in the top five,” Walbek said Tuesday by phone from Colorado.

“It’s really a mega rarity that you guys have them hanging out on your lake out there.”

Birders are hopeful the booby can eat enough to store the strength needed to return to its natural habitat, Walbek said.

“He’s going to have to eat a lot,” he said. And, birders have observed him hunting over the lake, a good sign, Walbek said.

“The hope would be that he gains up a lot of fat and reserves. The fact that he’s feeding is a good sign that he’s healthy.”

Conchas Lake State Park is 34 miles northwest of Tucumcari.

At a glance

• Birdwatchers don’t seem to mind driving long distances to see the bird, noting that normally one would have to drive over 1,000 miles to see a booby.

• The blue-footed booby commonly is found in the Gulf of California between the mainland and Baja, Calif., with occasional sightings at inland lakes in Arizona, Nevada, Southeastern California and Texas.

• This booby is the first on record in New Mexico, according to the American Birding Association.

The blue-footed booby has been sighted hunting over Conchas Lake — a good sign it’s healthy.