A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Friday, 5 August 2016

MEGA!! Purple Swamphen at Minsmere - should it get accepted on to Category A?

There is no arguing that Purple Swamphens in Britain have a very chequered history – the records are littered with unscrupulous escapees and the possibility of a genuine vagrant reaching our shores always seemed a very remote possibility indeed. Fast forward 6 years from the last twitched individual (an escapee that took a liking to a muddy ditch in Saltney) and Sunday afternoon saw phones bleeping and twitter coming alive in the birding community as reports surfaced of a Purple Swamphen at Minsmere spotted lurking amongst the reeds surrounding the pool near South Hide.
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere
Originally put out as ringed on the RSPB Minsmere Twitter feed before some hasty backtracking, it soon became apparent that this was the best candidate yet as a genuine vagrant, and most definitely had the potential to achieve what all British Purple Swamphens before it had spectacularly failed to accomplish – gain acceptance on to Category A of the British list.

Unringed, with full wings and most importantly being of the Western race of Purple Swamphen (‘Purple Swamphen’ as a species was split last year in to 6 full species, with Western Swamphen occupying Iberia and the Western Mediterranean), the chances were high that this could indeed be the real deal.
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
Digiscoped shot showing the full wings
Booking a day off work for the Thursday, Alex drove the epic 4+ hour journey to Minsmere from Cheshire, setting off at an ungodly hour in the morning and still managing to experience the joys of the M6 in all its glory (lorry fires, rolled over lorries, exploding lorry tyres and the inevitable motorway closures that come with it) eventually arriving on site at just after half 10. Approaching South Hide, I was surprised to see a relatively large crowd of birders and scopes present for a weekday, and we joined the waiting assemble to try and get a glimpse of the much talked about ‘Purple Chicken’.
Minsmere, Suffolk
The view over the pool at South Hide - the very same pool that held a Black-browed Albatross last year! 
After keeping us on our toes for around 45 minutes having disappeared in to a channel, the cries soon went up that the hen was back on show, and sure enough, we soon got a glimpse as it slowly worked its way through the reeds and crept through the shallows. At more than twice the size of the nearby Moorhens and being bright purple, it stuck out like a sore thumb, looking extremely out of place in a British reed bed and at one point positively startling the Mallards that had been dozing peacefully on the water’s edge.
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
With over 40 records of Purple Swamphen in Britain in the past and with all considered to be escapees, what's to stop the Minsmere bird joining them in the realms of escaped Swamphen purgatory? One huge point to consider is that the majority of records in Britain refer to the Grey-headed form of Purple Swamphen - found throughout Asia and the most commonly kept type in captivity. The Minsmere bird being of the Western type therefore immediately elevates it to the top of the list of likely wild candidates, with vagrancy potential from the Mediterranean and Iberia much higher than from across Asia and the probability of it being an escapee being significantly less.
Grey-headed Swamphen - Florida
Grey-headed Swamphen - more often to be found in captivity than Westerns
Whilst mainly found across Iberia, Western Swamphens have very recently colonised Southern France as a breeding location, and 2016 has seen an unprecedented number of birds disperse much further north than ever before – to date 8 records have surfaced of 9 birds found across Drôme, Rhône, Saône-et-Loire and even as far north as Morbihan. Granted, Suffolk is much further (and contains the added hurdle of the English Channel) but following the French records in a line north leads straight to East Anglia, perhaps displaying a natural path of dispersal.
Purple Swamphen Distribution 2016
Map showing the Northerly Purple Swamphen records during 2016.
Accepted as being genuine records in France if of the Western form, not all French birds have complied however, and a bird seen in 2014-2015 in Gironde relates to an African Swamphen of unknown origin and almost certainly an escapee, proving that not all records can be taken as gospel of being non-captive. 

Whilst at first glance the English Channel may pose as a stumbling block in the path of a Wild Purple Swamphen, it actually transpires that this species has made open water crossings before, with records from islands such as Malta, Menorca and Sardinia. The closely related American Purple Gallinule also has various records of long distance vagrancy (across the Atlantic Ocean no less) under it's belt, while other species of crake and rail have similarly shown instances of extreme distance flights, dispelling any myths that this family of birds are poor flyers. 
American Coot - Florida
American Coot and American Purple Gallinule - two species that have made the epic crossing across the Atlantic and dispelling the myth that rails are poor flyers
Often thought of as non-migratory birds, many species of Crakes and Rails do indeed move, often in the summer months, and it is entirely plausible that what at first glance may seem unlikely, is in fact a very real possibility.

However, one question to consider surrounding the Western Swamphen’s ability to travel long distances revolves around the large die off of Western Swamphens in France during the harsh winter of 2012, when several hundred birds were killed due to lack of food and starvation as their ponds froze over solid. If the conditions were so tough to the point of death, then why didn’t the Swamphens simply move elsewhere in order to survive?

Whilst most records of Purple Swamphens can quickly be attributed to being an escape, often traced back to a specific collection, two other great candidates for being Britain’s first genuinely wild Purple Swamphen have occurred in the past, yet have both been rejected; a bird found in Cumbria in 1997 that was rejected on the basis of being thought to be a hybrid between two races and therefore deemed to be of captive origin, and a promising individual at Sandbach in Cheshire back in 1971. Thought by many to be of the Western form, the record was rejected presumably on the basis that it couldn’t be proven that it wasn’t an escapee, especially with no pattern of previous natural occurrence in Britain. If the Minsmere bird does eventually get accepted, then surely this record must also be reviewed.  
Western Swamphen - Portugal
Western Swamphen - Portugal
Western Swamphens in their native Iberia
All in all, the chances of the Minsmere Western Swamphen getting accepted as the first wild bird for Britain look very good - rumours of a recent escapee in the area were put to bed after the bird in question was found to be of the common captive Grey-headed race, and with the unprecedented numbers of Western Swamphens dispersing in Northern France,  realistically it was only a matter of time before one made the leap over the channel and ended up on British shores. 


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hi, Great Post


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