At noon on New Year's Day, Stephen Carlson of Oak Bluffs made a remarkable discovery.
Mr. Carlson had just left his home on a dirt road when, upon reaching the pavement, he noticed an object in the road. Dazed and confused, walking and standing in the middle of the road, was a very odd bird. As if recovering from a celebratory New Year's Eve, this bird was bobbing and weaving.
The bird in front of Stephen Carlson's car was no Island turkey. It happened to be a rare bird that is most unusual in this part of the world. Its species prefers the tropics. The Vineyard, on the first day of the year, is a far cry from tropical. Remarkably, this chicken-sized bird, with long legs and toes, appeared to be purple. Vineyard school colors, purple and white. Hello, new millennium. The bird in question was a purple gallinule.
Making the sight all the more improbable, was the location. The roadway where the bird was wandering, numbed and starving, was in front of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) hall on Towanticut avenue in Oak Bluffs. Suburban Oak Bluffs, if you will, with no suitable habitat for a purple gallinule nearby.
Mr. Carlson pulled over and easily captured the obviously hurting bird. The bird was on its last legs, and what legs it has. Realizing this was something out of the ordinary, he went home and attempted to make the bird comfortable. He placed the bird in a cardboard box and called Gus Ben David.
Augustus Ben David, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, needs no introduction to most Islanders. A respected and well-known Islander, Mr. Ben David is an expert on wildlife matters. Gus and his son, Shane, own and operate the World of Reptiles and Birds, a fun and educational facility in Edgartown. He is a renowned expert on waterfowl and raptors. For rehabilitating and rescuing birds, or any other type of wildlife in trouble, there is no one better anywhere in North America.
Gus was out on Chappaquiddick at the time of the phone call, but upon returning home, called back and promptly went to see what Mr. Carlson had. While recognizing that he had something very different, he was not certain as to exactly what kind of bird this was. Gus was taken aback at the sight of an immature purple gallinule. A most remarkable bird to be found walking around in the road on New Year's Day.
He took the bird home and gave it a quick examination. The gallinule had no broken bones, but obviously was weak and starving. So he prepared a special pen for the bird, providing a heat lamp, mealworms, minnows and water. Initially, the bird was so weak that it was barely able to eat. It spent the night directly under the warming rays of the artificial sun. Twenty-four hours later, the bird was eating prodigiously and running around in its pen. Its comeback came surprisingly fast.
Purple gallinules are strange birds. They belong to an order of birds that include limpkins, cranes and rails. They belong to the same family as the rails, but the purple gallinule, American coot and moor hen are more ducklike and resemble them when swimming. The gallinule has relatively long wings for a bird of this type and is especially long-legged.
They prefer to walk and with their enormously long toes can easily move about on floating vegetation. They climb through brush and swim little, though they are capable of it. Lily-trotter is a local name given to them in areas where they are resident. This is because they are in the habit of walking around on water lilies, much like another bird also given this local name, the jacana.
The purple gallinule is the globe-trotter among North American rails, having occurred as far afield as Great Britain and Newfoundland in the Northern Hemisphere. The specimens, photographs and sight records from Massachusetts since 1955 are concentrated in April, May and September, but birds have occurred as late as January and February, one each in 1979 and 1964. It is rare indeed for this species to occur in the state.
Gus Ben David, born and raised on the Vineyard, who has lived his adult life here, can recall only three records for this peculiar species. The last was some 15 years ago. The fact that this bird is an immature, easily recognized by its plumage characters, means it most likely arrived on the Island in the fall.
It lived quite happily along the edge of some pond, stream or ditch, but as the weather got colder it became less happy. Eventually it got too weak to fly south and was frozen out of wherever it had been living and finding food. Stumbling around in the street on Jan. 1 proved to be its salvation. Delivered into the knowing and caring hands of an expert, it has been restored to vim and vigor.
What's next for the purple bird with funny long legs is a winter of relative calm and languor. To release the bird back in the wild, at this season, would be a death sentence. Flying it to Florida is too extreme. Waiting until spring and letting it go on the Island again seems to be the favored course of action. At any rate, this odd bird has added some ornithological excitement to the new year.