Porphyrula alleni

by Andrew Easton

Following the discovery of a dying immature Allen's Gallinule in Portland, Dorset, on February 10th 2002. (Pictures of this second record for Britain are on the Portland Bird Observatory website ) Now seems as good a time as any to look back at the first record for the United Kingdom.

100 years ago a new species was added to the British List, in the form of a juvenile/first winter Allen's Gallinule, although it took a further 72 years before it was officially admitted to the list. It was mentioned in the text of Witherby's Handbook, but not illustrated, as an escaped origin was not considered fully ruled out, though they did note that the species had occurred in Tunisia and Morocco that year.

On January 1st 1902 an exhausted rail, cinnamon in colour and about the size of a Moorhen Gallinula chloropus landed on a small fishing boat off the Suffolk coast at Hopton-on-Sea. It was taken to nearby Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, where it was taken in by a local taxidermist, Mr Walter Lowne, and kept alive for two days. It is not clear if the bird then died of natural causes or was killed to be stuffed. The bird was identified with the aid of books and skins lent by a Professor Newton, in particular it was the plate in Dresser's Birds of Europe which apparently clinched the identification.

It was noted as not showing any signs of captive origin, other than being very tame, but they did check with Woburn Park to see if they had lost anything like it, as they had previously been known to have released Purple Swamphens Porphyrio porphyrio on their estate in 1896 and 1897. (It's a shame they didn't take off like Golden Chrysolophus pictus and Lady Amherst's Pheasants! C. amherstiae)

J H Gurney in his article in The Zoologist also comments that "All Crakes and Gallinules are wanderers, because they fly high and are probably easily carried away by storms, and it is easier to explain the appearance of Porzana maruetta in Berkshire and the Hebrides, of Porphyriola martinica in Ireland of Aramides cayennensis in Wiltshire, and of P. alleni at Yarmouth by the theory of their being storm-driven migrants assisted by ships, than by the alternative theory of escape."

The scientific names of the all the birds mentioned in the previous paragraph have since been changed, so it's not just the common names that cause confusion as is the case nowadays.
Porphyriola martinica the American Purple Gallinule and P. alleni Allen's Gallinule have both changed genus slightly to Porphyrula.
Porzana maruetta
is given as a synonym of Spotted Crake Porzana porzana in A guide to the Rails, Crakes, Gallinules and Coots of the World,
and Aramides cayennensis is given as a synonym of Grey-necked Wood Rail Aramides cajanea a species from Central and South America!

Allen's Gallinule has occurred several times in Europe, and not surprisingly for a sub-saharan bird most records are from the Mediterranean region, particularly Italy and Spain. Two have been recorded in Spain this winter and a new species of rail for the Western Palearctic an African Corncrake Crex egregia was found dying on Tenerife, Canary Islands in November 2001. Details of these records can be found on the Rare Birds in Spain website..

But what has happened to the records of American Purple Gallinule from Ireland, and more intriguingly, the Grey-necked Wood Rail in Wiltshire?

Gurney, J.H. 1902 The Zoologist p.98-99
Taylor, Barry & van Perlo, Ber
1998, Rails: A guide to the Rails, Crakes, Gallinules and Coots of the World. Pica Press.
Witherby, H.F. et al 1941 The Handbook of British Birds. H.F. & G. Witherby Ltd

February 2002