In the open sea about 75 miles south of Nantucket, Captain Frank Green, nearing the end of a week-long fishing trip last month, heard a yell from his co-captain asking that he back the boat up.
Capt. Green complied, just in time for the fishermen on deck to toss a plastic fishing basket over the side and into the water, where a brightly colored bird about 10 inches in size was flapping fluorescent wings in clear distress. It hopped in the basket without hesitation, the captain recalled, and the men pulled the bird on deck.
“That thing didn’t belong out there—we knew that,” Capt. Green recalled on Monday morning.
He and his crew were aboard “The Bookie,” a 67-foot long-line vessel that he docks near Cor-J Seafood in Hampton Bays. They were chasing after tilefish, and were traveling to meet friends on another fishing vessel who had offered to swap a tuna for some tilefish for dinner. The unusual bird, he said, just happened to be in their path.
It wasn’t until they were back on shore a few days later when they realized just how unusual it was.
Once it was brought aboard, Capt. Green said they carried the bird, whose feathers gleam a blueish-purple and golden-green, up to the boat’s pilot house, where they offered it fresh water.
“He was a little awkward, because he didn’t know where to go,” Capt. Green recalled, though he added that the bird seemed to settle in for the remaining two days at sea, wrapping its claws around the boat’s auto pilot controls and rocking with the waves.
Once the boat docked in Hampton Bays, Capt. Green, who lives in Oakdale, carried the creature in a cardboard box to the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center, off Montauk Highway in Hampton Bays. A veterinarian determined it to be a purple gallinule—a tropical marsh bird that spends the summer months in the southernmost portion of the United States, and the rest of the year in Central and South America. Very rarely are the birds spotted so far north.
“We love to get unusual birds, especially when the outcome is good,” said Ginnie Frati, the executive director of the Hampton Bays wildlife rescue center. She said she was working to contact a wildlife center on the west coast of Florida so that the bird could be transported by air back to its native habitat.
Though it was severely dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia from the 58-degree water it had been floating in, Ms. Frati said this week that the bird seemed to be recovering well. From the time Capt. Green delivered it to the center on January 18, it had jumped from 132 grams to 155 grams in weight.
Visiting the rescue center on Monday afternoon, Capt. Green peeked in the brush-filled cage to catch a glimpse of his little friend.
Purple gallinules feed on seeds, fruits, small insects and crustaceans. Males and females have similar plumage, making it difficult to determine the bird’s gender without a blood test. Migratory birds typically live about two or three years in the wild, though sometimes longer in captivity, Ms. Frati said.
Capt. Green said it is not unusual for migratory birds to land on his boat, searching for any place to rest on the open sea, though he had never seen one of this sort nearly drowning in the water. Though field guides say purple gallinules are sometimes spotted as far north as New England, Ms. Frati said she could not guess as to why the bird ended up so far out to sea.
What is clear, however, is that luck was on its side.