Tuesday, 2 August 2016

What's purple and swampy?

Purple Swamphen at Minsmere

"Purple Swamphen at Minsmere". This was the notification which flashed up on my phone mid-afternoon on Sunday, sending me into an instant panic of 'twitcher's instinct' and swamphen-related stress. After making a quick couple of calls it was evident that I wouldn't be able to get there that evening, but was able to get on site tomorrow evening.

Purple Swamphen - Minsmere - 01 August 2016
Arriving at Minsmere mid-evening on Monday (twitch on!), I immediately darted to South Hide where it was no surprise to find around 100 birders waiting on the path. That's just what happens when a potential first for Britain turns up, and this was on a weekday... The morose expressions on their faces could only mean one thing - the bird hadn't been on show for a couple of hours.
I made my way past the bulk of the crowd and was lucky enough to get a space to view from at the top of South Hide, a prime location for viewing the 'albatross pool' behind the hide which the gallinule had been present on. It's rather odd how this pool (South Girder pool to use its technical name) has a habit of attracting megas, following last year's Black-browed Albatross.

Purple Swamphen - Minsmere - 01 August 2016
After waiting about an hour and a half, at 18:40 the big purple beast materialised from deep within the reedbed and spent a few seconds strutting about in the shallow water, before returning to skulk.
At 19:20, the swamphen emerged once more from the depths of the marsh and performed very nicely for seven minutes - this was well worth the wait! On both its appearances I managed to get a few terribly ropey phonescoped record shots and also took a couple of photos with the camera (coupled with a 150-500mm lens and 1.4x converter) which were marginally better than my dreadful phonescoped efforts.

Dreadful phonescope
Fifteen minutes later I decided to head back to the car park after spending just over two hours sat in shorts and a t-shirt in a chilly hide. The twitch was a great success and reminded me just how much I enjoy being at Minsmere after spending many days there over the past few years - I will hopefully be back later next week.
I'm rather glad I didn't get the chance to try for these when I was in southern Portugal in June as it gave me more incentive to go for this one!

Twitchers at Minsmere

Gallinule grief - the Purple Swamphen complex

The Purple Swamphen complex is now split into six species (Western, African, Grey-headed, Black-backed, Philippine, and Australasian). The Minsmere bird is of the western species (Porphyrio porphyrio) which breeds in southwest Europe (Iberia, France and Sardinia) and northwest Africa (meaning it is technically a 'Western Swamphen').
This species is now rapidly expanding its distribution north, with two adults being seen together in suitable breeding habitat (although no breeding evidence was confirmed) near Chalon-sur-Saone, and the first record for Brittany (NW France) on 20 July, only 11 day before the Minsmere bird was found (could even be the same individual), as well as multiple other French extralimital records of the species in recent weeks. It is also the correct time of year for post breeding or failed breeding dispersal, and I really can't see any good reason why this individual isn't a legitimately wild bird.

History of the Purple Swamphen in Britain

There have been 42 records of Purple Swamphen in Britain, including 28 19th century records, all of which have been rejected by the BOURC or were proven escapees.
A paper on the fairly well-twitched 1997 Cumbrian individual (which I believe was of an intermediate species, so more likely to have escaped from captivity) can be found here, and since then the species has expanded its range further northwards.
The Purple Swamphen is a fairly scarce species to be kept in captivity, and the majority of European captive birds are of the species poliocephalus (Grey-headed Swamphen), which is found in the Middle East, India, southern China and Thailand.
The individual at Minsmere is the only modern record which looks in any way good to be a natural vagrant and if accepted by the BOURC, the Minsmere individual will represent the first record for Britain - potentially the rarest bird I've ever seen in the UK.

Happy birding!
Max Hellicar.