• Robert DeCandido PhD

Purple Gallinule: First Occurrence in Central Park Since 1928

Updated: Feb 28

Bird Notes: OWL WALK! this Sunday at Inwood Hill Park meeting at 4:45pm - see below for info/directions. The recent owl walks have been amazing - next one in late December. For the morning bird walks please note: we are entering the slow time of the birding year. Please come with somewhat reduced expectations. Two weeks ago we could bring in 10-20 Ruby-crowned Kinglets using calls from my tape; now, if we get two at one location, that is good...apologies! However, there are always surprises: whooo knows when Central Park's first owl will show up!

This past Saturday, 2 November an immature (juvenile) Purple Gallinule was found in Central Pond at the northeast corner of Turtle Pond by Michelle Knoernschild. It is the second record of this species in Central Park (the first on 19 June 1928), and the third occurrence in the park. For more details on the latter, see the June 1891 article below.

The group of birds that includes the Gallinules, Crakes and Rails is particularly volant and prone to long-distance dispersal/migration. Remember the Corn Crake from Europe that was found on Long Island in November 2017? European Corn Crakes occur about every decade in northeastern USA, ask us for the article we wrote about the history of this species in America. Perhaps the rarest bird to ever occur in our area, an Azur Gallinule (January 1987, Long Island) got here from South America - see the historical note below. Thinking really big about this group of birds, a number of remote Pacific Islands have flightless rails...how did flightless birds get there, and then become distinct species? Briefly, their ancestors flew to these islands thousands (millions?) of years ago, and then lost the ability to fly in subsequent generations...

In this week's Historical Notes we present (a-m) accounts of the Purple Gallinule in our area, with the first occurrence in 1879 on Long Island. If you look through the records we have compiled, note the date of observation and the age of the bird: a pattern seems to emerge. Purple Gallinules in May-June-July are mostly (all?) adults. This suggests birds overshooting their breeding range (as far north as South Carolina) and/or adults wandering north after breeding. Then compare when most juveniles (= hatch-year birds, as was the one seen this past Saturday in Central Park) occur. Most juveniles in our area are found in September-October - early November. We don't have a theory why just yet. There is but a single record of a Purple Gallinule in our area in winter (Brooklyn; 27 January 1987). To understand these winter (late November to March) records, one has to read a great scientific paper by Andrew Farnsworth and cohorts - email us for a copy. Winter Purple Gallinules are most often found in New England (especially the Maine area), and it has to do with late season warm air masses moving up from the south. The paper is technical, but has broad implications for understanding bird migration. Our second historical topic (n) is perhaps the rarest bird ever found in the NYC area (in February 1987 in Nassau Co., Long Island): an Azur Gallinule, native to the Amazon Basin (Venezuela). How did an Azure Gallinule come to our area only to be killed by a cat? It is an amazing record for North America - let alone New York City!

Adult Purple Gallinule by Deborah Allen in Florida on 1 March 2013

Good! The Bird Walks for Early November 2019

All Walks @ $10/person - all in Central Park except for the Owl walk on 10 Nov.

Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/ya65n5a8

1. Friday, 8 November at 9:00am Conservatory Garden; 105th st. and 5th Avenue

2.***Saturday, 9 Nov. at 7:30am/9:30am Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive (Central Pk)

3a.***Sunday, 10 Nov. at 7:30am/9:30am Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive (Central Park)

3b. Sunday, 10 Nov. at 4:45pm - Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan for Eastern Screech-owls - see just below for full details

4.***Monday, 11 Nov. at 8:00am/9:00am Strawberry Fields at West 72nd Street and Central Park West - meet at the "Imagine" Mosaic (Central Park).

***On mornings when two walks are scheduled, you can do both walks for $10/person. So you get two for one. OR you can do either the early walk or the second walk for $10/person.

3b. Sunday, 10 Nov. at 4:45pm - Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan for Eastern Screech-owls. Meet outside Indian Road Cafe: 600 W 218th Street at Indian Road in 10034 upper Manhattan. We will be out for about 1.5 to 2 hrs. Bring a tiny flashlight (and if not, don't worry use your cell phone as a flashlight. I will have a powerful flashlight that is great for photography). Meet at 4:45pm at the Indian Road Cafe (has nice bathrooms [you don't have to purchase anything to use them]); a nice bar that sells soda and iced or coffee - and dinner/snacks which are quite good. We meet right outside the Cafe at 4:45pm - sunset is at approx. 5pm. NOTE WELL: Parking is very difficult in the nearby neighborhood...give yourself at least an hour to find a spot (too many apartment buildings and too few parking spots for everyone You have been warned!).

More info on Indian Road Cafe:

Here is a map, and if you plug in your starting point, you will get directions: https://tinyurl.com/y5o9pab5

This is the web site of the Indian Road Cafe where we meet (outside): http://www.indianroadcafe.com/

And here is the address of the corner where we meet at 5pm: 600 W 218th Street in 10034

Any questions send them our way: rdcny@earthlink.net or call: 718-828-8262 (home)

Blue-headed Vireo by Deborah Allen on 2 November 2019 in the Ramble (Central Park)

The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 7:30am and again at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive) through November. Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time! Fridays we are uptown at 9am only (Conservatory Garden at 105th street and 5th Avenue; nice bathrooms there); on Mondays at the Imagine Mosaic of Strawberry Fields (west 72nd street about 75 meters inside the park from Central Park West; no bathrooms here but we will pass bathrooms by 10am or so).

Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is above (rdcny@earthlink.net). If you are lost and trying to get to the bird walk, call Deborah's cell phone...but remember on weekends there will be 2-3 other people calling who are also lost - please be patient. If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk. We end all our Central Park walks (except Fridays) at the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total). Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we are a helpful group.

adult male Pine Warbler by Deborah Allen on 2 November at the north end of Central Park

Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)

Friday, 1 November (9am at Conservatory Garden/105th st and 5th Ave): Windy and cold, and even sitting in the sunshine at Conservatory Garden was not warm enough. Nancy Schauer found the female Scarlet Tanager along the north side of the Loch, feeding on small Crab-apples. This is a very late date for the area, though Deborah found one on a Christmas Count at Inwood Hill Park in the mid-1990s. Other highlights today included five Red-tailed Hawks together over Fifth Avenue at 108th street, and a nearby soaring Raven.

Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Friday, 1 Nov: https://tinyurl.com/yyvfputz

Saturday, 2 November (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - It was windy and cold (about 45F at 7:45am), but clear. You can check Deborah's list for the full details, but two birds stand out: we heard calling repeatedly, an Eastern Bluebird from the area of Belvedere Castle overlook at 8am...but could not find it. These birds have a distinctive call...but we never saw the bird! And then, at the very end of the walk, the Purple Gallinule! We were standing at the Dock on Turtle Pond, just the last few of us: Karen Evans, Peter Haskel, Gillian Henry and a few more (Bill Perro came running back after we texted him) - and David Barrett was with us. David received a call while we were at the Dock - Michelle Knoernschild and her husband had found a strange bird at the east side of Turtle Pond...they thought it was a Clapper Rail. David ran over and immediately saw the bird; the rest of us sauntered over. We all knew it was not a Clapper Rail...but were not sure what it was because it was an immature gallinule, and the bird was between us and the sunlight - so we were getting silhouette looks, albeit from about five feet away! This bird was foraging happily in the mud on earthworms, and was totally unconcerned with people nearby and remained that way all day even approaching people through the fence at one point. It was Deborah who first (and almost immediately) made the correct identification. (In everyone's defense, who expects a Purple Gallinule in Central Park? The same process occurred when the Boreal Owl was found in Central Park: observers first made it into a Northern Saw-whet Owl, a species that is very similar in appearance, but 20% smaller...because who expects the totally unexpected?) Anyway, about 50-75 birders throughout the day were able to see this Purple Gallinule because David Barrett immediately put the word out on Twitter via his amazing Manhattan Bird Alert. It is the best, most democratic and fun way to stay abreast of any "good" bird sighting in the park - we highly recommend it! Kudos to Michelle and her Sig Other for finding the Purple Gallinule and for contacting David Barrett right away; and to Deborah for getting the ID correct immediately. Great Team/People Effort.

Overnight, the Purple Gallinule left Central Park - who knows when the next one will be seen?

Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Saturday, 2 November: https://tinyurl.com/y4e4znh5

Sharp-shinned Hawk at Cape May Hawkwatch (New Jersey) on 4 October 2016

Sunday, 3 November (We met Uptown at Conservatory Garden at 9:30am) - Marathon Race Sunday and my goodness, we are glad it is over for another year. The park gets much quieter now - until April 2020! Today we started at Conservatory Garden and we soon had our first warbler of the day, a Pine Warbler at the Propagation area just above (west) of Conservatory Garden...and nearby two Field Sparrows. Along the way we found two other warbler species: a male Black-throated Blue at the Wildflower Meadow (via Sandra Critelli) and at the end of the walk, a male Common Yellowthroat at the Island in the Meer (Deborah Allen). Other good sightings included Fox Sparrows (Gilian Henry), Swamp Sparrows, Gadwall ducks...autumn is here.

Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Sunday, 3 November: https://tinyurl.com/y6hjr457

Monday, 4 November (Strawberry Fields [Imagine Mosaic] at 8am and again at 9am - After three days/nights of relatively good migration, today was slow...lots and lots of White-throated Sparrows. Highlight were a western Palm Warbler at Falconer's Hill; two Fox Sparrows in the Ramble; a juvenile male Cooper's Hawk at the Oven; and a rescued Hermit Thrush that John Bitetti took to the Wild Bird Fund (WBF) - quite an emaciated bird but otherwise fine. With some sugar water and fruit, this bird should be fine under the fine care of the folks at WBF. Indeed, we just learned the Hermit Thrush was released back into Central Park on Tuesday, 5 November.

Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Monday, 4 November: https://tinyurl.com/y2hcmpta

Juvenile Purple Gallinule by Ben Taylor at the Lake (Prospect Park, Brooklyn), 27 October 2018


Purple Gallinule (Ionornis martinica) - A specimen was shot near a small pond in Middle Island [Long Island in Suffolk Co.] in the Summer of 1879 by Mr. F. Edwards, who still has the bird in his possession. A. H. Helme, N.Y.

Purple Gallinule at Sea [11 June 1891]. The Ward Line steamship Niagara brought to this port on its last arrival here a passenger that was not on the manifest. This was a purple gallinule. When nearly sixty miles off the coast of Florida. this handsome bird, thoroughly exhausted, alighted on the awning of the vessel and made no attempt to escape when approached by one of the sailors. The bird was presented to the Central Park Menagerie. The gallinule is an inhabitant of Florida, and is a bird of short flight. The one in question must have been blown off the shore in a storm, but it is remarkable that the, bird was found so far from land. For this reason it is an ornithological curiosity. The bird this morning seemed none the worse for its hard experience.

Purple Gallinule Central Park June 1928

A single Purple Gallinule [probable adult] was present for several days on one of the uptown lakes in Central Park, first observed there on 19 June 1928 (Philip Kessler, T. D. Carter, DuMont, J. T. Nichols and others); its presence locally may perhaps be correlated with the occurrence of the species on Block Island on May 12, and at Stratford, Conn., on June 20 and "On June 19, 1928, T. Donald Carter, a mammalogist at the American Museum, and Philip DuMont, a well-known field observer, confirmed the identification of a Purple Gallinule on Harlem Mere at the north end of Central Park. It happened to be the second Tuesday of the month and a meeting of a local bird club was scheduled for that very night. After leaving the meeting, it was nearly 11 p.m. when the Bronx County Bird Club (the BCBC) raced off to find the gallinule. There it was, pumping its head as it swam, silhouetted against the reflected lights of Harlem." "The bird remained for several days and was seen by a score of observers."

Purple Gallinule on Long Island, N. Y [1934]. A [probable adult] Purple Gallinule (Ionornis martinica) was discovered, by a workman spraying a mosquito ditch, at the Jones Beach State Bird Sanctuary, on June 21, 1934. The bird was captured without great difficulty and readily ate freshly caught prawns. When it was released it fluttered and ran into a clump of bayberries and, when subsequently flushed, climbed and flew into the top of a small maple nearby; it exhibited no awkwardness in clambering about the upper branches. This is, I believe, the third record for Long Island. WILLIAM M. VOGT, Wantagh, N.Y.

Purple Gallinule (Ionornis martinica) in Cape May County, New Jersey. Mr. Otway H. Brown of Cold Spring, Cape May Co., N.J. tells me that on May 28, 1934, he flushed a [adult] Purple Gallinule from the edge of a bog not far from his home. It flew from almost under his feet and the wide spread greenish yellow feet were very conspicuous as well as the blue head and body and the red bill. Mr. Brown is well acquainted with the bird as he was with me when we examined the specimen caught at Anglesea a few years ago.

There are several other records for the county but this seemed particularly interesting in connection with the other 1934 occurrences, indicating a flight of these birds. WITMER STONE, Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia.

Purple Gallinule (Ionornis martinica) in Pennsylvania. On June 15, 1934 while observing a flock of American Egrets in Tinicum Twp., Delaware County, in the area recently flooded by the breaking of the dykes along the Delaware River, I found a Purple Gallinule which had just been run over by an automobile. It was badly mangled but the skin has been preserved and is now in the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

The bird was a female with inactive ovaries so that it was probably not breeding in the neighborhood and a survey, of the Florida Gallinules which were present in the vicinity, revealed no other of this species. It was well nourished and its stomach contained a full meal of insects besides a number of pebbles and a bit of vegetable matter.

Warren records four occurrences of the Purple Gallinule in Pennsylvania (Birds of Pennsylvania, 1889) but I know of no recent instances. C. BROOKE WORTH, 712 Wynnewood Road, Philadelphia, Pa.

Purple Gallinule - Other 1930s Records:

One was carefully studied in the marshes south of Freeport [Nassau Co.], Long Island, 28 April 1937 (Allan Dudley Cruikshank); one was captured at Southampton [Suffolk County], Long Island 27 July 1938 (C. Cobb); and another was seen at Peekskill, Westchester County, 31 May 1939 (Breslau).

Juvenile Purple Gallinule by Deborah Allen at Turtle Pond (Central Park), 2 November 2019

PURPLE GALLINULE (Porphyrula martinica) 1942-1962

Three specimen records: one found in badly decomposed condition, Shinnecock Bay (Suffolk Co. Long Island) on 18 June 1948 (Wilcox); another picked up dead, Easthampton (Suffolk Co., L.I.) on 20 April 1951 (S. Lester); and finally, one found alive in weakened condition, but later died, Westhampton (L.I.) on 19 April 1956 (Wilcox).

Five sight records 1942-1962: (a) Jamaica Bay Refuge (Queens Co., NYC), 14-16 May 1958 (several observers); (b) Hewlett (Nassau Co.) Long Island 17 May to 4 June 1960 (Dick Sloss and many others); Long Branch, New Jersey 20 May to early June 1960 (Seeley at alia); (c) one found exhausted at Bay Ridge, Brooklyn on 9 April 1962 (S. Rifkin) and presented to the Prospect Park zoo (fide Carleton); (d) an adult captured in a garden at Manhasset (Nassau Co.) Long Island on 5 May 1962 (J. Waite), and later that same day banded and released at the Jamaica Bay Refuge (fide Johnson and Ernst Mayer).

Extreme Dates: 9 April to 27 July. It is a curious fact that none of the 18 local occurrences took place during the hurricane season of August and September, the period when many Purple Gallinules are reported outside our area, and the season when most "tropical" species occur in our latitudes.


One on a small pond near the Poundridge Reservation (Westchester County), May 13 to

June 17, 1963 (Augustine and many others).

Adult caught alive by a dog along the Elizabeth River near Union, N. J., May 21, 1964; bird had a broken leg, but was otherwise in good condition; color photographed and banded by Knorr; after the leg had healed the bird was released in the Great Swamp, about 15 miles west of place of capture, June 14, 1964.

Brookhaven [Long Island], May 19, 1965 (Puleston and Raynor).

Autumn Records 1965-1969

Juvenile picked up alive, but injured, on the Westhampton (Suffolk Co. L.I.) golf course. Sept. 23, 1965; taken to the Quogue Wildlife Sanctuary where it died on Sept. 27. This specimen in AMNH collection. No. 785878, first local fall record; this bird may have been driven north by hurricane “Betsy” on Sept. 18. Previous latest date was July 27.

One filmed in color, Montclair, N. J., Oct. 24, 1966 (M. Kuhnen).

Adult found freshly killed on road at Montauk, Nov. 18, 1967 (M. Hemmerick); the latest report, specimen now in AMNH. These last two records are the second and third fall occurrences for the region.

Purple Gallinule 1970-Present in NYC-Long Island- Westchester County:

Unknown Age on 17 May 1973 at Cranberry Bog Nature Preserve, Riverhead, Suffolk Co., L.I. (Eric Salzman).

Adult 16-21 July 1975 at Mamaroneck, Westchester Co., and seen by many.

Adult captured 11 May 1978 in Kew Gardens, Queens Co. (L. Rosano) then released and photographed at Jamaica Bay (T. Davis).

Adult at Sea Cliff (Nassau County) Long Island 13-16 June 1980 (Barbara Spencer);

One (unknown age) at Prospect Park, Brooklyn on 11 May 1985 (R. Wade) "did not linger; perhaps it heard of the mugging of the last representative of its species to appear there in 1983."

Unknown Age was in the basement of a Greenport, Brooklyn factory for two days before being caught on 27 January 1987 is the only winter record of the Purple Gallinule in New York state.

Juvenile on 17-23 October 2002 at Bashakill Marsh, Sullivan Co. (J. Haas).

Juvenile on 13-23 October 2004 at Prospect Park, Brooklyn and seen by many; victim of predation.

Juvenile at Tibbetts Brook Park in Yonkers, Westchester Co. on 4-7 September 2013 (Ray Whitt). Westchester County’s ninth record.

Juvenile 19-27 October 2018 at Prospect Park, Brooklyn and seen by many.


Philip S. Gutis

February 14, 1987

What was the Azur gallinule doing in Angela Wright's backyard [Nassau Co., Long Island]? And who, or what, killed it? These are the unanswered questions surrounding the discovery of the gallinule, an ungainly bird that has never been seen in flight north of Venezuela.

Since December, when Mrs. Wright came upon the body and almost immediately put it in a Ziploc plastic bag in her refrigerator for safekeeping, word of the find, which might be the first sighting of the species in North America, has spread beyond this quiet North Shore community. So have rumors about its death. Mrs. Wright has a cat. The cat's name is T. C. Her nickname is Killer Cat.

''She's a calico and pounces on everything that moves,'' Mrs. Wright said somewhat apologetically. But the one thing of which she is certain is that T. C. did not kill the gallinule.

Adult Azur Gallinule in South America

'It's a Perfect Specimen'

''It looked so good to be dead,'' she said. ''It hadn't been mangled at all.''

The condition of the deceased is not without relevance. If it did not sustain visible bodily injuries, that would tend to support the theory that it flew 2,500 miles from its normal habitat in the Amazon Basin, perhaps to perish in the harsh Long Island winter.

''It's a perfect specimen,'' said the executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary in Oyster Bay, William J. Kolodnicki. He now has the bird in a freezer.

Among many enthusiasts, there is genuine excitement about the bird, dead or alive. They believe it might be the rarest find in the United States in years.

''It's a wild enough find that everybody is amazed,'' Dr. Frank B. Gill, curator of ornithology and chairman of the ornithology department at the Academy of Science in Philadelphia, said. ''Many conversations begin with, 'Did you hear about the gallinule?' ''

But for others, the excitement paled when they learned of its demise and the details of how it had been found huddled against the wall of Mrs. Wright's suburban home.

''We get excited when there is a live bird we can go see,'' explained Lawrence G. Balch, president of the 7,500-member American Birding Association.

Mrs. Wright is still excited about the gallinule. With its blue, green, black and white coloring, it is quite unusual looking.

Several Feeders in Backyard

''I thought it was a weird bird,'' she said on hearing that experts believe her find strayed far from the Amazon Basin.

Mrs. Wright admits that she is not an aficionado, but she said she ''appreciates'' birds, despite ownership of a predatory cat.

She keeps several bird feeders in her backyard and has been known to go to great lengths to assist neighborhood birds during the winter.

''My husband says it is fun to watch me breaking up the ice in the pond just so the birds can get some water,'' she asserted.

If the gallinule did fly all the way from Venezuela - members of the rail family are known for their ability to show up mysteriously hundreds of miles from their native territory - it would be the ''first documented record in North America of an Azur gallinule,'' said Dr. Gill, who heads the American Birding Association Checklist Committee, which certifies first sightings.

''If it came up here unnaturally, it probably won't be counted on the North American list of records,'' he said.

'I'm Not Too Excited Yet'

There are skeptics. Mr. Kolodnicki said the gallinule might have belonged to a man in Dix Hills, not far from here, who collected unusual birds. Or, he said, the bird might have hopped onto an oil tanker bound for the New York metropolitan area.

''I'm the skeptic, and I'm not too excited yet,'' he said.

Those who sought natural explanations for the death pointed out that in the wild the bird could not have survived long in the bitter winter that the Island is enduring.

Normally, the gallinule, or Porphyrula flavirostrios, lives in warm marsh land. It is, perhaps not without significance in the current case, described by experts as a very secretive and shy bird.

''They are very funny birds,'' Dr. Gill said. ''They are fundamentally weak fliers - they flop around without the skill and grace of most birds.

''Yet they have a tendency to travel very long distances. There is a real history of long-distance vagrancy by rails and gallinules.''

No one has yet come up with an explanation that puts the mystery to rest. And T. C.'s not talking.

Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD

Follow our Bird Sightings on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC

Juvenile Azur Gallinule in South America

#PurpleGallinule #Gallinule #AzurGallinuleonLongIsland