Last spring, while I was on a three month study abroad trip to South Africa, I saw my lifer Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio). It was standing, partially hidden by reeds, in a large wetland area in Wilderness National Park. The bird noticed me and ran off across the water, trying to vanish into the reeds on the far side of the shallow stream. I couldn’t believe my eyes – the bird was big, like grouse-sized only with really long legs and long toes; and was as colorful as a Purple Gallinule. This massive relative of the coots was accidentally introduced into southeastern Florida in the early 1990’s. Escapes from aviculturalists resulted in a sizeable population forming in the swamps and wetlands around Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
Earlier this month I was finally able to visit the area around Miami where Purple Swamphens were introduced, and was able to find them at Chapel Nature Trail in Broward County, FL. As soon as my friends and I arrived, we spotted one swamphen foraging in the reeds. It flushed up and landed a little farther away, right next to a second swamphen! One of the first things I noticed about the two birds was that the head and neck of these individuals was a pale blue, almost gray color. The bird I saw in South Africa had a darker blue head, not much different in color than the bird’s back. I had heard that this species had at least two subspecies – one light-headed and one dark-headed, but I didn’t realize it was so drastic. After a little more research, it turns out there are at least 13 subspecies of the Purple Swamphen! The darker-headed race I saw in South Africa was P. p. madagascariensis, and the bird’s in Florida are of the P. p. poliocephalus race. The P. p. poliocephalus race naturally occurs in the Caspian Sea area. Check out the following photos I took of the two races…..