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Quirky looking purple swamp-hen’s surprise appearance at RSPB Minsmere draws in bird spotters

PUBLISHED: 18:50 01 August 2016

The purple swamp-hen, captured on camera at Minsmere by Craig Shaw

Photo: Craig Shaw

The purple swamp-hen, captured on camera at Minsmere by Craig Shaw Photo: Craig Shaw

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Twitchers are converging on RSPB Minsmere in their hundreds to see one of the most bizarre birds ever to visit the famous nature reserve – and one that will be the subject of a forensic ornithological detective investigation in a bid to solve a migratory mystery.

Hundreds of bird watchers descend on Minsmere to see the purple swamp-hen

Photo: Craig FulcherHundreds of bird watchers descend on Minsmere to see the purple swamp-hen Photo: Craig Fulcher

A quirky “cartoon character” of a bird that has traditionally been known by several names, such as purple swamp-hen, purple gallinule or its less-scientific “blue chicken” or “swampy” nicknames, has lured excited and frantic birders from many parts of the country.

They are desperate to see the bird as it could prove to be the first of its species to be accepted by ornithological authorities as a genuine vagrant rather than an escapee from captivity.

In an extraordinary twist to an already extraordinary tale, Minsmere’s swamp-hen is frequenting the same pool as the bird that was last year’s undoubted shock highlight of Suffolk ornithology – a black-browed albatross.

In addition, the RSPB staff member who found the albatross was also the first staff member to see the swamp-hen, with the July discovery dates being just a few days apart.

The purple swamp-hen, captured on camera at Minsmere by Craig Shaw

Photo: Craig ShawThe purple swamp-hen, captured on camera at Minsmere by Craig Shaw Photo: Craig Shaw

Holder of the honour, Ian Selkeld, said yesterday: “Two exceptionally rare birds on the same reedbed pool behind the reserve’s South Hide almost exactly a year apart is an amazing coincidence and to be the first RSPB person to see both is quite something I suppose.”

Like a massive blue coot with a bright red bill over which is a brilliant red “shield”, the distinctive bird has long red legs and huge feet. As twitchers continued to arrive yesterday to admire the bird, ornithological investigations to establish its credentials began - and could result in it being an addition to the official British bird list.

RSPB south Suffolk reserves warden David Fairhurst, a member of the British Birds Rarities Committee that adjudicates on rare bird records, said there were “a lot of hoops to pass through” before the bird – whose species is now officially known as western swamp-hen – could be accepted as a wild individual but there was circumstantial evidence to back up such a case.

“There are a few western swamp-hens known to be in captivity in Britain and they do breed quite easily, so there is the possibility of this one being an escapee,” he said.

“However, you could make a case for it being a genuinely wild bird. It is the time of year when wetlands in its southern European range are drying up and when birds are moving 
about after the breeding season.

“It is a western swamp-hen so its range is closer to Britain than other forms of swamp-hen which have been known to escape into the wild from captivity here, and there are other ‘westerns’ way out of their range in France at the moment so that may indicate movement too and makes the Minsmere bird more credible.

“It will all have to be forensically studied and, if it gets that far, it will be for the British Ornithologists’ Union to decide if it should be accepted as a first for Britain. Swamp-hens are like cartoon-character birds - they are very quirky looking things and it all seems a bit surreal. Minsmere’s reedbed is exactly the sort of habitat you’d expect one to choose if it wandered to Britain - and it’s all great entertainment whatever happens.”

The swamp-hen has capped a recent “purple patch” of excitement that is extraordinary even by Minsmere’s high standards.

Steve Piotrowski, the author of the latest county avifauna The Birds of Suffolk, said: “July is often thought of as a quiet month but it’s been anything but at Minsmere this year.

“In the last week or so there’s been an impressive range of passage wading birds, with Suffolk’s ninth-ever Baird’s sandpiper from North America or eastern Siberia being the wader highlight, a Caspian tern, another rarity, flew over while we were watching the swamp-hen and other scarce birds have included wood warbler and a honey buzzard. Its bee quite a purple patch – and the use of the word purple is now very appropriate.”

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