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.

Baby food

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Gray-headed swamphen and chick at Green Cay Wetlands in Boynton Beach yesterday afternoon.

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Ever since I first saw these marsh birds a year ago at Lakeside STA I have hoped to see another.

Blogged Oct. 2017: New bird: 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.

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Look at those magnificent feet and crazy-long toes. Good for walking on wetland vegetation.

The adult grasps a blade of grass and bites off a piece.

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Porphyrio poliocephalas is an escaped nonnative that’s been making itself at home in South Florida since the 1990s.

Porphyrio is the swamphen or swamp hen genus of birds in the rail family. The genus name Porphyrio is the Latin name for “swamphen”, meaning “purple”.

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Feeding the chick.

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That is adorable.

 

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.