Be Your Own Birder

Bird of the Week: Purple Gallinule

This week’s featured bird is especially notable to me, as just yesterday it became the newest bird to fly (or rather, strut across lilypads and other pond vegetation) onto my life list. And what a colorful addition it is!

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule – Photo by cuatrok77

Name: Purple Gallinule
Scientific Name: Porphyrio martinica
Scientific Family: Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules and Coots)

Habitat: These birds are right at home in wet marshes and open swamps with abundant floating vegetation over relatively shallow water. They are found only in freshwater regions, and vegetation must be dense for them to walk over it as preferred. Because of their preferred habitat, these birds are not found at high elevations or in the steepest mountain ranges.

Range: These are tropical birds found throughout the Caribbean, coastal and southern Mexico, Central America and most of South America except southern Argentina and Chile. Purple gallinules are also found year-round in central and southern Florida, and during the summer breeding season, they extend northward into the southeastern United States as far as Texas, Arkansas and South Carolina.

These are colorful birds with a richly iridescent sheen. The upperparts are blue-green with teal on the upper back, while the underparts, head and neck are bright royal blue. The lower abdomen can appear black, and the short tail is white below and dark above. The legs are bright yellow. The bright red bill has a yellow tip, and the top half of the frontal shield ranges from powder blue to lilac purple. The very long toes look ungainly but give these birds perfect footing on uncertain surfaces.

These are marsh birds, but they are frequently seen in more open parts of the marsh as they stalk along on top of floating vegetation in search of insects, seeds, grain, small invertebrates, plant buds and other tasty morsels. They may walk slowly and deliberately with exaggerated strides, or mince more quickly with a sense of urgency. While they don’t often gather in large groups, they will frequently mix with similar marsh birds such as common gallinules and American coots, and may also be found near storks, ibises and other wading birds in the proper habitat. All these birds together can form very large, loosely associated flocks.

I’ve long wanted to see one of these birds, and finally had my chance over the weekend with my first visit to Orlando Wetlands Park, a lovely facility with a variety of ponds and marshy habitats interspersed with topical forest swaths. While it took some time to locate a purple gallinule – after diligently scanning many different common gallinules and flocks of coots – I was rewarded with spectacular views in bright sunlight that showed off this bird’s magnificent coloration and every detail of its field marks a birder could hope for. A few minutes later, I was even more privileged to see several purple gallinules together, enjoying the pristine habitat they love. From preening and bathing to walking, running and foraging, I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to add a very colorful and memorable lifer to my list. May all your lifers be as rich!

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