Lightning, it appears, really can strike twice. 

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about the incredible appearance of a black-browed albatross on the pool behind South Hide. That was potentially one of the most bizarre and unexpected sightings ever at Minsmere, but even that may have been trumped by the incredible events of the last three days.

It all began about 11 am on Sunday when news came in of a purple swamphen on exactly the same pool that the albatross had been seen on. This news was tempered by reports that the bird may be ringed, suggesting a captive origin, as with all previous UK records of this species. However, photos quickly proved that there were no rings, and what's more it was of the western race that breeds in Spain and Portugal.

This made things much more exciting. I'll try to explain why, but first, what, I hear you ask, is a purple swamphen?

Purple swamphens are relatives of coots and moorhens, but as their name suggests they are purple. In fact they are bright blue and purple, and they have huge bright red bills and thick red legs. They are also huge: like an overgrown chicken. This has earned them one of their nicknames: blue chickens. Think about an archetypal cartoon bird and you wouldn't be far wrong, as you can see in the photo below by one of our regular visitors.

Purple swamphen at Minsmere by Philip Tyler

Purple swamphens live in reedy wetlands throughout Spain and Portugal, with a tiny but expanding population in southern France. They also occur in central and southern Asia and much of Africa, those the races in those areas looks subtly different with greyer heads and/or greener plumage. They are not usually migratory, so were not on the list of rare birds that British birdwatchers were hoping might turn up.

This is not the first time that a purple swamphen has been seen in the UK. However, all previous sightings have been of birds that have been considered to be escapees from captivity. Most of these were ringed, and belonged to one of the Asian races. This bird, however, could prove to be the first wild swamphen to occur in the UK.

Here's a summary of some of the reasons why this might actually be a wild bird:

  • It belongs to the western race that breeds in Iberia and southern France
  • It is not ringed
  • Mid summer typically sees wetland birds dispersing around Spain as their wetland homes dry out. For example, cattle egrets and glossy ibises often arrive in the UK in these conditions. There is also a severe drought in parts of Spain and France this summer
  • There have been several reports of purple swamphens farther north than usual in France this summer, including one in Brittany
  • A cattle egret has also arrived at Minsmere today, and there has been an influx of painted lady butterflies from Europe.

However, there is a chance that it could have escaped from captivity somewhere in the UK or northern Europe, and the British Ornithologists' Union Rarities Committee will have to consider all of these and many more issues before they decide whether to add purple swamphen to the official British list.

Once news broke of the swamphen on Sunday, crowds of twitchers began to arrive from around the county, and by Monday morning many had travelled several hundred miles across the UK in pursuit of this amazing birds. Luckily, it remains in its chosen pool today, and has attracted a long stream of admirers, although it can hide within the reeds for long periods.

With this rare bird arriving in the middle of the school holidays, many families have also been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it, and today we welcomed news crews from both BBC Look East and Anglia TV.

You can see many more pictures of the swamphen, and keep up to date with news from Minsmere @RSPBMinsmere on Twitter.

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