In late May, I received a “Connecticut Rare Bird Alert.” A bird had been spotted in the little marsh near the intersection of Cream Hill and Cherry Hill Roads: a Common Gallinule, which is common in the southeast, but thrillingly rare hereabouts. Birders began showing up with cameras and binoculars, aiming their lenses into the tall cattails. We had become a destination.
The Common Gallinule is a marsh bird, a cousin of the coot. The size of a long-legged duck, it lurks among aquatic foliage. It eats almost anything – water plants, insects, worms, tadpoles, and mollusks. Even other birds’ eggs, which is disappointing. Gallinules spend their winters in the southeast and summers in Canada. Normally, New England is flyover territory, but this bird had decided otherwise.
Male and female are identical, and both look as though they have been dressed by an Italian designer. Each wears a glossy black coat; the wings edged with chic white dots. Most striking is the brilliant red-orange forehead and bill.
The Gallinule is hard to see as he ducks between the cattails, lurking in the backwater, but he is not hard to hear. He sounds like a cross between a monkey and a raven, offering a variety of clucks, stuttering croaks, and loud whicker-whackers that are unmistakable.
Apparently, this was the only Common Gallinule in Connecticut, and it had chosen Cornwall. I wanted to see it and went down one afternoon. I stood on the road, waiting and looking. It was a fine mild day. I didn’t see the gallinule, but I watched a teenage beaver bothering her mom, who was trying to get some dam work done. I could watch beavers all afternoon, so I wasn’t disappointed, but I still wanted to see the Gallinule. A few weeks later, I ran into birdmeister Larry Master, the original sighter, and asked if he’d take me to look for it.
We met the following day at 8 A.M., Larry with a big camera, me with a notebook and cell phone. We stood silently, watching the still water and the narrow channels through the cattails. The air space was rife with red-winged blackbirds and tree swallows, and we heard yellow warblers and song sparrows and the low banjo-twanging of the green frogs. But no monkey-voiced songster. Birding is a bit like fishing: it gives you a serious reason to be outdoors, and this was a beautiful morning, fresh and breezy. Two women came by, walking fast. They asked if we’d seen anything interesting, but they didn’t even slow down at the word “gallinule.”
After nearly an hour, we hadn’t seen anything, though I’d glimpsed a dark bird scuttling across the channel, far back in the reeds. “That’s him,” Larry said. But that was all, so Larry brought out the big electronic guns. He turned on the Gallinule call, a series of low coaxing clucks. The sound went out into the morning air through the bottle-emptying calls of the blackbirds, the shrill cries of the swallows. Then, far back in the swamp, came an answering cluck. Cluck-cluck-cluck, called Larry. Cluck, came the response. Cluck. He was there. Larry called up Google Maps to show the open water, far back in the cattails, from which the Gallinule was talking to us. Larry wheedled and cajoled, and the shy gallinule listened, wondered, and responded. He was getting closer. It was like a magic show. Cluck cluck, Larry coaxed, and the bird drew nearer and nearer. Finally, we saw rustling. Larry pointed to a black spot between two cattails. “It’s him,” he whispered. The calls continued.
Finally, the only Common Gallinule in Connecticut moved modestly out into the open channel, turning his brilliant head back and forth, looking around for the second Common Gallinule in Connecticut, the one who had been calling him for the last forty minutes. Silent, thrilled, Larry and I aimed our lenses as he moved, recording his image, proof that the only Common Gallinule in Connecticut was there in residence along Cream Hill Road, waiting hopefully for that other Gallinule to swim shyly out of the cattails and say hello.
📷: Photo above, “The actual Cornwall Gallinule” by Larry Master, www.masterimages.org