Tropical Birds in Maine? In January? What's Going On Here?

People all across the state have reported seeing purple gallinules over the past week

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Birds often found in tropical places like the Caribbean and Florida are appearing in Maine.

Over the past week, people from Gray, outside Portland to the Acadia region have reported what scientists have identified as purple gallinules.

“If you see photos of them, they’ve got these incredibly long toes,” said Doug Hitchcox, a naturalist at Maine Audubon.

How did a colorful creature that’s more Jimmy Buffett than Stephen King, more Everglades than Scarborough Marsh, more Margaritaville than Machias, end up in Maine?

The answer is likely strong wind following a storm that passed through Maine last weekend.

“Most likely they just realized they had a good tail wind to be flying on,” said Hitchcox, who explained that this is far from the first ti,me gallinules have been found far beyond their normal northern reaches in the Carolinas, with the first documented sighting of the species in Maine dating back to 1870.

Hitchcox himself spotted one in Sanford, Maine, in 2009 and there have been more recent sightings in the winter of 2013-2014.

“There’s this long kind of pattern that’s been established,” said Hitchcox, adding that a weather event and dry conditions in the Caribbean seem to coincide with the birds’ overshooting the place they were likely planning to land.

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Prior gallinule encounters also lead Hitchcox to believe that there may be more of the “secretive” creatures out there in Maine wetlands and though they are far from home, he believes that there is a decent chance some of them will realize their mistake.

“If they’re in good health, I would see no reason a gallinule would not be able to fly itself all the way down to Florida,” said Hitchcox, adding that much of the chance a gallinule returns to the sky depends on how fat it is.

“If they have the strength, typically in the form of fat reserves, they’ll reorient and get back on track,” he added.

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There is also a chance some of the birds will end up succumbing to Maine’s colder climate.

However, Hitchcox cautioned that anyone who sees one of the gallinules is better off leaving it alone rather than trying to make a mad dash to save the creature since neither climate change nor humans brought the animals here.

“The initial reaction for folks is if you see something like a gallinule near your porch, you scoop it up and trying to get it to rehabbers,” he said, explaining that the result could be the bird getting dropped off in a wetland where it isn’t supposed to be."

“Ecologically it makes no sense to do that... it’s a thing that happened and let nature happen,” Hitchcox said

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