New bird: escaped swamphens thrive in Florida wetlands

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If you crossed a small purple dinosaur with a backyard hen you would get the Gray-headed Swamphen. They do run around (seemingly on top of the water) like sleeker, more athletic chickens. Their feather colors are beautiful.

Yesterday I joined members of Audubon of Martin County for a birding adventure at Lakeside Ranch Stormwater Treatment Area, near Lake Okeechobee, from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. It was partly cloudy with temperatures in the mid-70s, and nice to be outside in slightly cooler and less humid temperatures. The rainy season can end now, thank you.

Here is our eBird checklist, compiled entirely by other members of our party even though my name is on it. I am too much of a newbie to be confident about my sightings. But this trip, led by the VP of our local Audubon chapter, really helped me.

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Isn’t this strange and beautiful bird? There are various kinds of swamphens all over the world, members of the wetland-loving Rallidae family of rails, crakes, coots and gallinules, but the population in Florida is nonnative… like a lot of other animal species here. We didn’t see any feral hogs yesterday but there are so many in that STA that they regularly cull the population.

We were watching these swamphens and some other native gallinules and one more-experienced member of our party, trying to remember what they are officially called, termed them “the bad purple invasive ones.” A beginning birder on the trip, who was born in Spain, said to me later, “Well, I’m invasive too. If it lives here now, I think it’s a Florida bird.”

I was reading about our little swamp dinosaur yesterday afternoon, after reviewing my photos and wanting to know more about several species. The tale of Florida’s Purple Swamphens, now Gray-headed Swamphens, is pretty interesting.

University of Florida: Florida’s Introduced Birds: Purple Swamphen

The widespread destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 resulted in the accidental release of many species of non-native wildlife in Florida, including Purple Swamphens. It is believed that most of the individuals found in Florida escaped from bird keepers in the Pembroke Pines area as a result of the hurricane; however 6–8 individuals also escaped from the Miami Metro Zoo around the same time. Purple Swamphens were first documented living in the wild in Florida in 1996, and by 1999 the population in Pembroke Pines had grown to at least 134 birds. Purple Swamphens were first reported in the Everglades Water Conservation Area in 2006.

ABA: Introducing the Purple Swamphen

Gallinules on steroids. That’s how ABA Checklist Committee Chairman Bill Party thinks of Purple Swamphens. Pranty, an expert on exotic bird populations in the ABA area, is a prominent advocate for thinking and birding beyond a simple tick on a checklist. Thanks to the diligent research of Pranty and his colleagues, the Purple Swamphen is now countable on ABA lists. In this article, we are introduced to the strange, troubling, and fascinating story of the Purple Swamphen. It is a story that is still unfolding, and we hope that birders will contribute additional knowledge and understanding to the matter.

Bird of North America: Gray-headed Swamphen

A large, colorful rail with dark purple to blue colors and a large red bill and frontal shield, the Gray-headed Swamphen is a recent addition to the avifauna of North America due to the establishment of a nonnative population in southeastern Florida. Although recently known as the Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio), the taxonomy of this species is complex and various taxonomic bodies now spilt the P. porphyrio complex into 6 species, including the Gray-headed Swamphen (P. poliocephalus).

The native range of the Gray-headed Swamphen extends from the Middle East through India and southern Asia to northern Thailand. In 1996, this swamphen was discovered in Florida at Pembroke Pines in Broward County, the result of unintended releases from one or two private collections nearby. The following decade saw the Gray-headed Swamphen expand its range within Southeast Florida, including the Everglades, the Everglades Agricultural Area, and Lake Okeechobee, with dispersers found outside this region. From October 2006 through December 2008, an eradication program by state agencies removed 3,187 swamphens. However, the eradication campaign was deemed a failure at reducing the distribution and abundance of swamphens, and was discontinued. Since then, the Gray-headed Swamphen has continued to increase in the region and the species is now a common sight in stormwater treatment areas, water conservation areas, agricultural areas, and constructed wetlands in urban and suburban Southeast Florida.

The Gray-headed formerly-known-as-Purple Swamphen is “Florida” bird #65 for me. I have now surpassed my New Hampshire “official” blogged count. I’m trying to naturalize in my new home.

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