If you’re a golfer in central Algarve, you probably have! This heavyweight, sub-tropical marsh bird (twice the size of a Moorhen) has benefitted from the proliferation of golf courses, with their numerous freshwater features. There is no better example than at Quinta do Lago, where the birds nest in the well-vegetated lagoon and often feed with Coots out on the fairways. Naturally secretive, they have become habituated to disturbance and can be observed (and photographed) at close quarters. Formally known as Purple Gallinule, this name is now reserved for an unrelated American species, only very rarely recorded in Europe.
The Purple Swamphen has a disjunct world distribution. At its western limit, it has only a very restricted range in southern Europe and north-west Africa. It next appears at one site in southern Turkey and more commonly along the Nile. Other forms exist elsewhere in Africa, around the Caspian Sea, in the Sub-Continent and points east as far as the Antipodes.
When I first visited the Algarve in the late 1970s the chances of seeing this iconic species were virtually nil. Its fortunes in Iberia have fluctuated wildly, with hunting pressures causing widespread local extinction during the last century. Since the 1980s there has been a remarkable recovery as a result of legal protection, the creation of artificial wetlands (including extensive rice fields in southern Spain), natural colonisation from core areas and reintroductions at former sites.
Historically, the Swamphen featured in Roman mosaics in Portugal, dating back to the 2nd Century. It was still common in marshes in the west and south of the country until the early 19th Century after which uncontrolled hunting decimated the population. Just a few pairs survived in the Reserve at Faro. There are now hundreds of pairs in the Algarve with the population expected to increase further.
The species is omnivorous but relies mainly on the shoots of aquatic plants, insects and snails. Other marshland species are at risk, however, as it has been seen climbing into low trees to take eggs and nestlings, so probably also targets those of reed-nesting birds. Water snakes have also been caught and consumed.
Swamphens are surprisingly vocal with a wide repertoire of sounds. A loud alarm call, reminiscent of a toy trumpet, is characteristic but there is a lot of quieter ‘conversational chatter’ between individuals.