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Purple gallinule’s unusual visit to Long Caye

A visiting purple gallinule hides out in the rafters of our sea kayak palapa while dodging a pesky plague of local grackles. (Click the pic to get a better look)

It was during the last couple of weeks of our season – a busy year (in fact our biggest season in 30 years!)  It was early afternoon and a group of us were hanging out by the sea kayak palapa when we noticed a huge “grackle commotion.”

A grackle on Long Caye

About 15 of the small black birds were gathered nearby and making quite a racket. We’re used to the antics of the grackles. They abound on the islands of Glover’s Reef and are commonly found in large flocks, which numbers they use to their advantage — a habit that has earned them the label of bully with many a bird watcher. It wasn’t the first time we’d seen grackles ganging up on something but this was off the charts. Something unusual was definitely up.

It soon became apparent what all the fuss was about. At the center of the grackle flap was a large purple and green bird, the like of which we never saw on the islands this far off shore. It was a purple gallinule! Right off I told the others what its name was, and that we almost never saw them on Long Caye.

It’s only by chance that I even happened to know what kind of bird this stranger was. Years before I had had the luck to run into one while taking a tour of the Lamanai ruins in the interior jungle of Belize. Because the purple gallinule is a rare sight, even in those parts, the guide made quite a thing of having spotted it and the memory stuck with me. We never see them on the island. Normally they hang out in swamps.

Its extremely long toes help it walk on lily pads without sinking. (Click the pic to get a better look)

We chased off the plague (that’s actually the technical name for a group of grackles – fitting, eh?) and our sheepish gallinule (aka “swamp hen”) headed straight for the rafters of the nearby shade palapa and stayed there until that night. The rest of the afternoon, you could look over at the kayak palapa and someone would be standing there, in the one spot that afforded the best closeup look a the beautiful, colorful bird, which is about the size of a pheasant. The next morning it was gone and we never saw another like it again. If we do, we’ll keep you posted.

Below is a bit we found out about our exotic visitor from searching the web:

The Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus) is a “swamp hen” in the rail family Rallidae. Also known locally as the Yellow-legged Gallinule.

This is a medium-sized rail, measuring 26–37 cm (10–15 in) in length, spanning 50–61 cm (20–24 in) across the wings and weighing 141–305 g (5.0–10.8 oz).[2][3] Males, averaging 257 g (9.1 oz) in mass, are slightly larger than females, at 215 g (7.6 oz) on average.[4] The adult Purple gallinule has big yellow feet, purple-blue plumage with a green back, and red and yellow bill. It has a pale blue forehead shield and white undertail. Darkness or low light can dim the bright purple-blue plumage of the adult to make them look dusky or brownish, although the forehead shield color differentiates them from similar species such as Common Gallinules.

Juveniles are brown overall with a brownish olive back.[5] These gallinules will fly short distances with dangling legs.
Their breeding habitat is warm swamps and marshes in southeastern states of the United States and the tropical regions of Central America, the Caribbean and northern South America. This species is resident in southern Florida and the tropics, but most American birds are migratory, wintering south to Argentina.
The nest is a floating structure in a marsh. Five to ten eggs are laid. Their coloration is buff with brown spots.
They are omnivorous – their diet being known to include a wide variety of plant and animal matter, including seeds, leaves and fruits of both aquatic and terrestrial plants, as well as insects, frogs, snails, spiders, earthworms and fish. They have also been known to eat the eggs and young of other birds.
This species is a very rare vagrant to western Europe and southwestern Africa. There is a similarly-named species in Europe, Asia and Africa, the Purple Swamphen, Porphyrio porphyrio, but that bird is much larger.