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By Peter Vankevich
There are rare birds and then there are spectacular rare birds. One of the latter showed up recently on Ocracoke Island.
Islanders Heather Johnson and Claire Senseney last Tuesday (Jan. 16) came across a real beauty. That morning they decided to visit the beach at the north end.
“Just as we passed the Nature Trail, I caught a glimpse of this brightly green-colored bird right at the marsh line on the side of the road,” said Johnson.
“I just saw the craziest bird. We have to turn around,” she exclaimed and provided the following details:
“We did a U-turn and went back. There he was, just wading in the water eating things. We sat in the car watching him and taking a few pictures. He’s the most beautiful bird I’ve ever seen on this island–deep indigo purple head, bright iridescent green body, bright red and yellow beak. At first, he had his head tucked down into his shoulders. He actually looked kind of cold. Once I got out and slowly started moving toward him he perked his head up and I was surprised that he had a neck. He was cautiously watching me. He continued hunting for food and that’s when I saw his bright, long, yellow legs.
“We watched for a little while longer then drove to the Nature Trail parking lot so I could call Peter Vankevich. We also Googled to see if we could find out what species he was. Because he was so brightly colored I immediately thought he had to be tropical and was obviously lost. Then after seeing his legs I knew he was a wading bird of some kind. After a little searching and double checking–Google first told us it was an American Coot–we concluded that it was indeed a Purple Gallinule.”
Serendipitously, Pat Garber and Denny Dobbin were walking to the parking area after doing some birding from the dunes and beach. Johnson called to them to look at the bird. They spent a lot of time observing it and Dobbin also took some photos.
“I’ve seen this bird farther south, but never on Ocracoke,” Garber said.
A member of the rail family, the Purple Gallinule is related to the American Coot and the Common Gallinule both of which can be seen on Ocracoke, especially in the fall and winter. The Common Gallinule, formerly known as the Common Moorhen, is similar in appearance but its plumage is more subdued with a brown back, gray flanks, darker head and white in the wing and tail. See photo below for comparison.
In the South, the Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica) is also called a swamp hen. It breeds in suitable habitat in the Lower Coastal Plain of Gulf states and along the Atlantic seaboard to South Carolina. One of the best locations to see this species is the Florida Everglades, which is where Dobbin has seen them.
Its typical habitat are freshwater ponds or impoundments with floating vegetation such as lily pads, and they forage by walking on the pads. They also can be seen in marshy vegetation.
In the past there have been a few records of breeding in Brunswick County in the southeastern are of the state.
The Birds of the Outer Banks checklist describes it as a rare or accidental visitor to the Outer Banks.
The Carolina Bird Club website–Birds of North Carolina–notes: The species has an odd proclivity of straying anywhere and practically any time, even appearing far out of normal habitat, such as in downtown areas.
Not surprising, with the extensive wetland losses from 1950s to 1970s in Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi, there was a corresponding decline in this species, and habitat loss continues to add to its decline.
Johnson appreciated this extraordinary sighting.
“It was just hanging out on the side of the road and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” she said. “It reminded me of a time when I was in elementary school and a Bald Eagle had been seen hanging out at the Nature Trail, so my Mom pulled me out of school early that day to go look at him.”