Category Archives: 07) Rails, Cranes, Bustards

Little Bustard in East Yorkshire

Little Bustard twoMartin Garner

Pretty cool end to the year. Blooming’ marvellous find by Kev Barnard, followed up by relocate by Tony Dixon. Tony’s phone calls (via the wonderful Dave Aitken) mobilised a team from Flamborough to search for the bird. The kale/brassica field looked most likely and before long Phil Cunningham was blurting forth “its right here- right in front of us” and so it was!

Don’t know ‘owt about sexing birds in winter etc but seemed to have dark base colour to nape feathers and rather shaggy dark throat feathering at times when feeding. Wondering if that makes it a (first winter?) male?

Here it is:

and couple more grabs

and a Happy New Year!

Little Bustard one Little Bustard three


American Purple Gallinule Vagrancy in the North Atlantic, November 2013 – February 2014

American Purple Gallinules are champions of long-distance vagrancy, with records from as far north as Iceland, as far south as South Georgia Island, as far west as the Galapagos Islands, and as far east as Italy and South Africa. This species, and many other rails, are habitat-based dispersalists, adapted to respond to ephemeral habitats and with the machinery to travel long distances. This winter has seen a big influx. What’s driving this?

Team eBird

In late fall 2013 and winter 2014 there have been a surprising number of records of this species far out of range (originally compiled by our friend Louis Bevier and subsequently amended by Teams BirdCast and eBird): 7-11 November 2013, Parque Monsanto near Lisbon, Portugal (see more here; taken in to care 11 Nov and died 13 Nov); 17 November 2013, Seal Island NWR, Maine fide Juanita Roushdy and John Drury; 8 December 2013, Clarenville, Newfoundland8 January 2014, Trenton, Maine, thanks to Michael Good; 9 January 2014, Clermont, NJ; 10 and 13 January 2014 from Bermuda; 19 January 2014, Maccallum, Newfoundland fide Bruce Mactavish; 21 January from Bermuda; 29 January 2014, Kettle Cove, Maine (apparently long-dead) fide Richard Jones via George Armistead; 30 January 2014, Iceland; and 2 February 2014, Mullett peninsula, County Mayo, Ireland. That’s 11 far-flung records of birds that were found (American Purple Gallinules are not easy to find!), with three of them crossing the Atlantic!

Two obvious questions come to mind. First, how did they make it across the Atlantic? And what were they doing moving in the first place? We offer an in-depth analysis of the effects of cold, drought, and wind and air parcels on BirdCast and a quick summary below.

Winter range

eBird distributionThe temperate zone winter range for American Purple Gallinule is primarily peninsular Florida, Mexico and Central America south to northern South America, and the Caribbean, with additional populations farther south in South America breeding during this time. The map at left shows this typical distribution from eBird observations of the species from November to February. Of note in this map are occasional winter records away from Florida in the US and frequent records of the species from central Florida south to the Florida Keys. The red balloons represent observations in the last two weeks of January 2014. EXPLORE THE EBIRD MAP HERE.

This range is by no means static, as marsh habitats with floating and emergent vegetation are often ephemeral and subject to drying out. During abnormally dry years birds may be forced to move, and this could also happen in abnormal cold years. During these movements individuals may go far afield in search of suitable habitat, a behavior that is likely echoed in numerous other species of rails. For winter 2013-2014, we contemplate the source region for this recent vagrancy event and explore hypotheses of what might be driving this year’s movement.

It ain’t the cold in North America!

Cold weather in North America appears to have very little to do with this year’s American Purple Gallinule extravaganza. The polar vortex that has received so much hype in North American media has not directly affected the primary wintering grounds for American Purple Gallinule.

Furthermore, there have been virtually no freezes, prolonged or Departure from Normal Tempisolated, in the species’s typical winter range on the Florida Peninsula. Unlike areas in the Southeast US north of Florida, only 1 day since 4 November 2013 has seen temperatures dip below 0 degrees Celsius in central Florida, with no days below freezing in the heart of their Florida range.

Drought in the Caribbean

The graphic below shows the standardized precipitation indices for the the last 1-, 3-, 6-, and 12-month periods for southeastern Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean, and north South America. Note the striking red colors that become more intense over the course of the last year in the Greater Antilles (especially the Caribbean islands of Hispaniola and Cuba), where American Purple Gallinule winters (and reside year-round) regularly.

Caribbean DeparturesThese colors represent precipitation indices 2 standard deviations below the mean for the past 30 years, indicating significant drought conditions. The potential for these conditions to spawn movements of gallinules seems very high. We believe that the vagrant gallinules probably originated here: this is an area with wintering American Purple Gallinules, the conditions are ideal to spawn a large-scale dispersal event, and as we will see, the wind currents can easily connect vagrant records back to this region.

Wind and air parcel analyses explain vagrant records


Wind patterns this winter have been favourable to support movements of gallinules over the ocean to Iceland and Ireland.  There is a strong Caribbean connection as well, with high altitude winds linking an air parcel beginning on Hispaniola with the North Atlantic. Similar conditions existed on 22 January to support movements of gallinules over the ocean to Iceland and Ireland. Several other maps of air parcels are included in the full BirdCast feature.

Water-cooler Fodder

Although this winter’s cold temperatures could yield far-flung American Purple Gallinules, evidence this year is stronger for drought driving dispersal from the Caribbean and south Florida. The same systems that have brought extreme cold to the eastern U.S. are also bringing these strong wind fields as the storms spin up the east coast, and this surely has aided the successful trans-Atlantic flights by these gallinules. South America does not seem a likely source, given the prevailing flow of winds in potential source areas for gallinules on that continent. But the origin, motivation, and mechanism of movements are open questions and discussions worth continuing, as we have barely scratched the surface of these patterns. For example, conditions are generally favorable this winter for Nearctic and Neotropical vagrants to reach the Palearctic, with general flow of winds to the east across the Atlantic in the presence of an Azores High, a pattern referred to as positive North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). (As an aside, these conditions and the prevailing trade winds also make for favorable conditions to deposit Palearctic migrants in the Neotropics, a topic we will discuss further in an upcoming BirdCast post.) NAO phases are cyclic, albeit irregular in their timing and strength. Previous years with strongly positive NAO may well correlate with other instances of North Atlantic vagrancy in this species: if anyone looks into that we’d love to hear back! That would help to answer the question of whether this year is different, whether something fundamental changed, or if American Purple Gallinules this year just encountered a perfect combination of drought conditions, positive NAO, and a wobbly polar vortex that is sending numerous strong low pressure systems up the Atlantic Coast. Check out the Full BirdCast Feature.

–AF, MJI, CLW; Team eBird & Team BirdCast

The American Purple Gallinule in Co. Mayo

Carne Golf Links, Belmullet, Co. Mayo 2nd February 2014

Dave Suddaby

Another stormy wet weekend passes and it is now Monday morning (3rd February 2014); I’m sitting in the office staring at my computer screen trying to muster up some inspiration – I start to contemplate coffee, its 10.37, and then my mobile rings. Everything changes. On the ‘other end’ was Ruth-Ann Leak from the BirdWatch Ireland Mayo Branch. She had just taken a phone call from the Belmullet Met Office reporting an American Purple Gallinule! Bizarre.

American Purple Gallinule, Carne Golf Links - as found 2 February 2014 Kevin Donnelly

American Purple Gallinule, Carne Golf Links – as found 2 February 2014 Kevin Donnelly

Living on the Mullet and working for BirdWatch Ireland I regularly get phone-calls from members of public about odd or sick birds and invariably they turn out to be something ‘common’. However, the trouble with these phone-calls is that you ignore them at your peril…… so a quick phone call to Kevin Donnelly at the Met Office and sure enough he was adamant that the bird was indeed an American Purple Gallinule – time for a quick dash up the peninsula!


American Purple Gallinule, Belmullet 3 Feb 2014 Dave Suddaby

American Purple Gallinule, Belmullet 3 Feb 2014 Dave Suddaby

It transpires that on the previous afternoon, KD and Eddie Killeen had been playing golf at the local Carne Golf Links and following a wayward shot off the 16th tee they went in search of their ball and found an azure blue bird lying dead ‘in the rough’. Curious as to what it was they took a photograph of the bird and then continued with their game. That evening KD emailed the photograph to a colleague who they knew had an interest in birds. A return email informed them as to its identity and that it should be reported; hence KD reporting the bird and being confident with its identification.

American Purple Gallinule, Belmullet 3 Feb 2014 Dave Suddaby

American Purple Gallinule, Belmullet 3 Feb 2014 Dave Suddaby


Having not seen the photograph, and whilst I was driving up the peninsula I started to wonder what the bird could be, if not a gallinule, but before I had given it much thought I was pulling into the Met Office yard. By this time the bird had been placed in a small box as KD had returned to the golf course to retrieve the bird – thankfully the local foxes hadn’t taken it overnight! The box was handed to me and, to my astonishment staring back at me was a fresh, but unfortunately dead, American Purple Gallinule! A quick examination soon revealed that the pectoral muscles were completely wasted and the sternum could be felt protruding knife-like beneath the breast feathering; the eyes were still clear looking and the feather condition was fresh indicating that it hadn’t been dead for too long. After being photographed, the specimen has been frozen and it will be donated to the National Museum in due course.


American Purple Gallinule, Belmullet 3 Feb 2014 Dave Suddaby

American Purple Gallinule, Belmullet 3 Feb 2014 Dave Suddaby


Although the body and wing feathers are a mix of purple, azure blues and greens, the presence of brown tips to the feathers, especially to the head and nape, seems to indicate that the bird is in its second-calendar year (first-summer). And with a wing length of 186mm and bill length of 30.7mm would indicate that it is a male (BWP). This may explain the bright upperwings for its age. A possible confusion species is the smaller Allen’s Gallinule, but the bi-coloured bill and yellow legs soon eliminate that species.


American Purple Gallinule, Belmullet 3 Feb 2014 Dave Suddaby

American Purple Gallinule, Belmullet 3 Feb 2014 Dave Suddaby

 Previous Records

This is the first Irish record and represents the 8th record for Europe; the first record being of an immature, picked up exhausted, on the Isle of Scilly on 7th November 1958 which died on 9th November (British Birds 53: 145-146). Two others have occurred in Britain; a first-winter, again found dead, on 24th January 2011 in Devon and another found dead in 2008 in Bedfordshire. The most recent record was last week when one was found dead in Iceland on 30th January 2014 that represented the third record for Iceland, and followed a first-winter that was present near Lisborn from 8th November 2013 until being taken into care on the 11th November where it died on the 13th and represented the first Portuguese record.


American Purple Gallinule, Belmullet 3 Feb 2014 Dave Suddaby

American Purple Gallinule, Belmullet 3 Feb 2014 Dave Suddaby

Birding in Israel

Reporting on The Hula Festival

The Hoopoe. Israel’s national bird, photographed yesterday fanning everything (crest, tail and wings) in the grounds of the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament).

Only flew back in this morning from Tel Aviv after a really stunning 10 days. Surely Israel ranks as one of the THE top birding spots in the world. I have many stories to tell on the amazing Birds, the amazing Animals, the amazing Places and the amazing People.

For now a little flavour:

The Birds and the Light make taking photos a lot easier even for a duffer like me. This young male Hawfinch was at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory yesterday.

Smyrna Kingfisher. one of 3 species often seen side-by-side whose core ranges are the 3 major continents of Africa, Asia and Europe. Birds know no boundaries, and have already played a role in helping to bring peace initiatives in a divided region.

The sheer numbers and variety of species provides a genuine wildlife spectacle. These are White Pelicans which soar daily, in large flocks over the Agamon Park, Hula Valley.

The sight of up to 40,000 Cranes at dawn. Not only are the numbers staggering, it is the views of the birds that is unbeatable

Birds of Prey were amazing. Eagles,  Harriers, Kites, Vultures- and never-ending! The ID challenges and questions were there too, like: is this a Black Kite, a Black-eared Kite or what…?

and I personally made a big thing of looking at the Stonechats (4-5 different types occurring here)- with some surprising observations… What do you think this one was?

seeing this juvenile Masked Shrike was how Tristan Reid and I ended our visit. Now I need to start going through the pics and telling the stories!

For now a special moment for me was watched orange bellied Swallows (of the subspecies transitiva) over the Sea of Galilee at sunset. Stay tuned!