COMMON GALLINULE (MOORHEN)

Common Gallinule.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley

WHAT’S IN A NAME? COMMON GALLINULE aka MOORHEN

Names can be a hassle. My own, when not my alter ego Rolling Harbour (from a long line of Harbours), was a act of Baptismal Folly for which I cannot be held responsible. I could have changed it by Deed Poll were I seriously bothered, but I am aware that there are far worse names out there and at least mine reflects my scandi-scottish origins I suppose.

Common Gallinule, Abaco - Bruce Hallett

The Moorhen has had a far worse time of it. Over many decades its name has been changed, changed back and changed again. Partly it’s to do with a continuing debate over the New World and Old World subspecies – or as it now stands, separate species. Even that status has changed around over time. It’s enough to give the poor creature an ID crisis.

Bahamas-Great Abaco_7551_Common Gallinule_Gerlinde Taurer copy

The Common Gallinule Gallinula galeata, as it has been known since 2011, is a bird of the rail family. The AOU decreed its divorce from the Common Moorhen after due consideration of the evidence and it is now lumbered with the less familiar and user-friendly Gallinule name.

Common Gallinule, Abaco - Peter Mantle

Note the yellow legs and large feet (unwebbed)

Moorhens (I’m using this as a comfortable nickname, aware that I am flying in the face of progress) are usually seen swimming serenely around ponds or picking their way through marshy ground as they forage. They have an aggressive side, hissing loudly if they feel threatened and fighting to preserve their territory or nest. Nestlings have been observed clinging to a parent as it flies to safety with its offspring as passengers.

Bahamas-Great Abaco_7536_Common Gallinule_Gerlinde Taurer copy

WHAT IS A ‘GALLINULE’ WHEN IT’S AT HOME

I wondered what the word ‘Gallinule’ actually means? What is the derivation? The BINOMIAL NOMENCLATURE (basically = scientific name in Latin) of most species is largely unintelligible unless you have some knowledge of Latin. But most birds end up with a useful, often descriptive, everyday name. Red-tailed Hawk. Least Tern. Yellow Warbler. Painted Bunting. You know what to expect with those. But a ‘Gallinule’ could as easily be a french cooking receptacle or delicious dish. Or a grim and slimy horror from Tolkien. Or maybe something / someone out of Harry Potter. Sleuthing online reveals that the word is a modern Latin construct of the c18, derived from the Latin diminutive word for a ‘hen’. So it’s simply a hen. As in Moorhen.

Common Gallinule, Abaco Woody Bracey

WHAT IS A ‘MOOR’ WHEN IT’S ATTACHED TO A HEN?

This does not refer to a wide swathe of open upland country, often covered in heather and gorse, where in the UK (especially in Scotland) every August 12 thousands of grouse are traditionally shot. It stems from an honest Old English word for a marshy or swampy area, Mor. It was used from early mediaeval times and itself comes from Saxon and Germanic roots. So perhaps calling the Common Gallinule a [Common] Marsh Hen would be more helpful… Or – hey! – why not have American Moorhen and Eurasian Moorhen, a perfectly valid differentiation used quite satisfactorily for other species…?

Common Gallinule (nonbreeding adult).Abaco Bahamas.2.12.Tom Sheley

Adult non-breeding plumage

There’s more on the naming of birds generally and Moorhens specifically in a couple of amusingly-written sources I came across. The first is from NEMESIS BIRD written by Alex Lamoreaux in 2011, called Goodbye Moorhen, Hello Gallinule. The second is from the excellent 10000BIRDS.COM entitled Moorhen Mania – the splitting and renaming of the Common Moorhen

Common Gallinule (Leucistic?) - Tony Hepburn

The bird above with a striking colouring and orange beak was photographed by the late Tony Hepburn. He believed it to be an unusual LEUCISTIC moorhen with reduced pigmentation, a condition that has similarities with ALBINISM

BAHAMAS - Common Gallinule, Abaco, TC GC Hole 11 - Becky Marvil

At some stage I am planning a companion Coot post. I won’t need to go on and on about that name. It may not be descriptive but it is short and simple, and everyone knows where they stand with it. Until they decide to rename it a Cotellinule…

Gallinule © Hans Hillewaert

Credits: Tom Sheley, Bruce Hallett, Peter Mantle, Gerlinde Taurer, Woody Bracey, Tony Hepburn, Becky Marvil, Hans Hillewaert, Nemesis Bird, 10000birds.com

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SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPERS ON ABACO

Semipalmated Sandpiper, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

“CHECK OUT THE WEB” (2) SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPERS ON ABACO

Having recently headlined a post for SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS with a web-related title, I’m repeating it for Abaco’s other part-webbed shorebird, the semipalmated sandpiper. Either it’s so apposite that it doesn’t need changing; or else I lack the imagination to think up something new…

Semipalmated Sandpiper (juv), Abaco (Bruce Hallett)
semipalmateThis attractive little sandpiper Calidris pusilla has the partially webbed feet that give it its name. In spring and fall these ‘peeps’ are the most numerous shorebirds on Abaco but they are just passing through on their migration further south – so-called ‘transients’. Flocks of these birds may be arriving any moment now on a beach near you. The signifiers are black legs, a short, straight dark bill, and a body that is white underneath and brown /gray on top, tinged lighter on the head and neck. 

Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla (MDF) 

SO THEY’RE EASY TO SPOT ON THE SHORELINE?

Not really, I’m afraid. This species is very easy to confuse with other small shorebirds (with which they happily mingle), especially the less common western sandpiper which has a slightly longer and downturned bill. It takes an experienced birder to tell them apart. The most reliable way – to see the feet to check for the partial webbing between the toes – is far from easy. A photograph of the bird as it picks its way across sand, tide margins or mud may be best, if you can zoom in on the feet. The webbing is just visible in both the images above and the one below. 

 Semipalmated sandpiper (Thomas W. Gorman : Conserve Wildlife NJ

WHERE DO SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPERS LIVE?

These are birds of the far north – Canada’s tundras and Alaska, close to water – where they breed and lay their eggs in scrapes. Rather sweetly, the male makes several prospective nests for the female to choose her favourite and furnish with grasses etc. Both adults share incubation duties. The chicks are independent almost as soon as they are hatched. Then in early fall they head many miles south to warmer places, of which Abaco is one of the most northerly, principally as a stopover for rest before continuing their journey to the coastal margins of South America. The migrating flocks may contain tens of thousands of birds. Of the many range maps around, this one from the excellent avibirds.com shows the marked contrast between the summer and winter habitats very clearly. 

Semipalmated Sandpiper distribution map (Avibirds.com)

Semipalmated Sandpiper (Dick Daniels Wiki)

HOW DO THEY COMPARE IN SIZE WITH OTHER SANDPIPERS?

The SPSP is one of the smallest shorebirds, the female being slightly larger than the male. This image shows 2 of them in the company of a much larger white-rumped sandpiper (also a transient on Abaco) for comparison.White-rumped Sandpiper + 2 semi-palmated(Woody Bracey)1 copy 2

Time now to get the binoculars out (now where on earth are they?) and patrol the beach to catch the first of these little birds as they begin to arrive in considerable numbers during their fall migration.Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

ADDENDUM a recent SPSP from Bruce Hallett, in which the semipalmation can be seen Semipalmated Sandpiper (Bruce Hallett)

Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 2), MDF (3), Thomas Gorman / Conserve Wildlife Foundation NJ (4), Avibirds (infographic), Dick Daniels (5), Woody Bracey (6) [& comments – cheers], Alex Hughes (7)