With feathers the color of a tropical sea and giant yellow feet, a warm-weather bird called a purple gallinule was spotted in southern Maine on Jan. 16, hundreds of miles from home. On the same weekend, a second purple gallinule showed up in Bar Harbor, where it was captured and transported to a nearby wildlife rehabilitator.
A species that typically winters in southern and tropical swamps, these birds were likely carried to Maine by strong winds from the storm that hit New England over the weekend, said Doug Hitchcox, naturalist at the Maine Audubon and a member of the Maine Bird Records Committee. And they may not be the only ones.
“This might be the tip of the iceberg of purple gallinules in the Northeast right now,” Hitchcox said. “They are typically in wetlands walking around on lilypads, so they’re generally really hard to see and detect. So the fact that two have been found probably means there’s a lot more around.”
While it’s rare, this isn’t the first time inclement weather has driven this tropical bird to the state.
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At least 30 sightings of purple gallinules have been recorded in Maine since the late 1860s, with the first recorded sighting in Calais in 1869, Hitchcox said. Prior to the gallinules recorded in Maine this year, seven were recorded in the past 30 years.
But that doesn’t mean the species is well-suited to survive here. Vagrant purple gallinules that do make it to Maine in the winter often end up perishing due to cold temperatures and lack of food.
“Every now and again one is found dead,” Hitchcox said. “They can’t find any food, and they don’t have enough energy to find their way back.”
Purple gallinules winter in freshwater wetlands in southern Florida, the Carribean islands and along the coast in Mexico and Central America. They’re adapted to those warm climates, with long toes that allow them to walk on top of vegetation and soft mud without sinking. In cold regions, their toes can easily fall victim to frostbite. Furthermore, they can’t forage for food in frozen marshes.
However, it is possible that a healthy, vagrant purple gallinule could fly from Maine back to its normal range, Hitchcox said. These types of successful flights have been recorded among other displaced birds.
“We do know a lot of vagrants will redirect, especially after a storm,” Hitchcox said. “There are some seabirds that are great examples of this. Especially in the fall, species of more tropical terns will show in the Northeast, and birders do this mad race out in a storm or immediately after [to spot them] because you’ll see those birds flying south. They’re probably well aware they’re in the wrong spot and need to get back where they’re going.”
As a member of the Maine Bird Records Committee, Hitchcox hears about unusual bird sightings often. Formed in 2005, the committee reviews reports of birds spotted in Maine, acts as a repository for the documentation of those reports and maintains an official list of bird species recorded in Maine.
On occasion, vagrant purple gallinules that are sick, weak or injured are captured by licensed wildlife rehabilitators and treated, then transported back to their normal range. Such was the case for the gallinule recently found in Bar Harbor. A licensed wildlife rehabilitator attempted to nurse it back to health, but it died the next day.
If a vagrant purple gallinule is healthy enough to fly, it’s challenging if not impossible to catch. This was the case for the bird spotted in southern Maine. While the person who spotted it wanted to help it, it flew off when approached.
Many rehabilitators and biologists choose to leave vagrant birds alone and let nature run its course, especially for birds that appear to be healthy.
“Vagrancy is a very natural thing,” Hitchcox said. “It’s how birds expand their ranges and move into new areas.”
The purple gallinule is just one of several foreign bird species that have popped up in Maine in recent years.
“There are some birds that definitely wander and will show up in Maine even though they don’t breed here,” said Bob Duchesne, bird expert and Bangor Daily News columnist, “and then there are some that don’t wander very much, and we’re always amazed when they show up here.”
A rock wren that has been in Ogunquit for the past month is a good example of this, Duchesne said. Common in the rocky mountains of places like Texas, Arizona and Colorado, rock wrens don’t usually wander far from home. The rock wren currently in Ogunquit is only the second ever recorded in Maine.
The great black hawk found hunting in Portland in November of 2018 is another example of a bird that wandered to Maine from far away. Native to Central and South America, the bird remained in Portland for several months before succumbing to the cold weather. It’s now memorialized in a bronze statue, which was erected the following year in the park where it was so often seen hunting.
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While storms often push vagrant birds far off course, other factors can come into play as well. Some birds found far from home may have a genetic problem that hinders their ability to navigate, Duchesne said. In addition, abnormal climate conditions such as drought can push certain species of birds to disperse farther than normal.
In fact, in the winter of 2013 to 2014, drought was believed to be one contributing factor to a surprising number of purple gallinules reported in places far outside their natural range. During that period, lone purple gallinules were found in Iceland, Ireland, Bermuda and Newfoundland. And at least three were found in Maine — in Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, Trenton and Kettle Cove.
With such a distinct look, these colorful birds are easy to identify when they do show up in unexpected places, and if they enter populated areas, they’re hard to miss. Hitchcox wouldn’t be surprised if the Maine Bird Records Committee received more reports of them in Maine this month.
Clarification: In the hours after this story was first published online by the Bangor Daily News, the wildlife rehabilitation center that cared for the purple gallinule found in Bar Harbor announced that the bird had died. The story has been updated to reflect this.