The swamphens, mudhens and moorhens of Green Cay

“Welcome to Green Cay!” announces the Red-winged Blackbird, the unofficial mascot of the reconstructed wetlands habitat in western Boynton Beach that is managed by Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation.

Link: Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands.

A one-and-a-half-mile long boardwalk traverses 100 acres of wetland habitat with SO MANY BIRDS to see! And other creatures too.

Porphyrio poliocephalus is preposterous and pretty.

The Gray-headed Swamphen…

is related to Florida’s native Common Gallinule, Purple Gallinule, and American Coot, the bigger, bulkier Swamphen looks superficially like a Purple Gallinule on massive doses of steroids. The Swamphen is an Old World species and is a relatively recent newcomer to Florida’s wetlands, being first recorded in Pembroke Pines, Florida in 1996, having likely escaped or been released from a private bird collection.

The Common Gallinule is the most common of the rail family in Florida, and possibly North America. Old timers call them moorhens.

Green Cay is a great place to see moorhens, swamphens, mudhens – all strange, long-legged denizens of freshwater marshes and members of the Rail family, Raillidae.

“Rail” is the anglicized respelling of the French râle, from Old French rasle. It is named from its harsh cry, in Vulgar Latin rascula, from Latin rādere (“to scrape”).

You would not think the striking colors of a Purple Gallinule provide camouflage… until you see these birds among blossoming pickerel weed.

Lurking in the marshes of the extreme southeastern U.S. lives one of the most vividly colored birds in all of North America. Purple Gallinules combine cherry red, sky blue, moss green, aquamarine, indigo, violet, and school-bus yellow, a color palette that blends surprisingly well with tropical and subtropical wetlands. Watch for these long-legged, long-toed birds stepping gingerly across water lilies and other floating vegetation as they hunt frogs and invertebrates or pick at tubers.

Another purple flower in the swamp: alligator flag.

Large leaves of the alligator flag, a native Florida wetlands plant.

Looking down from my dry perch on the boardwalk, I spied a Common Gallinule with a mostly-bald chick.

The chicks are precocial, leaving the nest one day after hatching. Parents feed them for about three weeks.

Not something you see every day! And one of many good reasons to get to Green Cay in spring.

An American Coot makes an appearance.

The waterborne American Coot is one good reminder that not everything that floats is a duck. A close look at a coot—that small head, those scrawny legs—reveals a different kind of bird entirely. Their dark bodies and white faces are common sights in nearly any open water across the continent, and they often mix with ducks. But they’re closer relatives of the gangly Sandhill Crane and the nearly invisible rails than of Mallards or teal.

The American Coot is also known as a mudhen.

I’ve only seen these birds a few times. I could hear a couple of old guys nearby talking about what they were seeing and I could tell they knew their birds so I doublechecked and asked, “Can you tell me, is that an American Coot?”

One of them said, “Yes, that’s an American Coot… and we’re Old Coots.”

These old coots know their coots and rails.

Another one of the preposterous swamphens (Gray-headed) snacking on roots and shoots.

More on this non-native bird from the first time I saw one, in October 2017: Escaped swamphens thrive in Florida wetlands.

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.

The mascots of Green Cay are also the guardians of Green Cay. These Red-winged Blackbirds said, “Not in my backyard!” to this Red-shouldered Hawk.

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