Chinese Pond Heron... Dalmatian Pelican... and now Purple Gallinule (or Swamphen, if you prefer). These are all birds that have 'arrived' in the UK, whose identification is beyond doubt, and yet whose credentials have (or are) being questioned.
"Can we count them?"
"Are they wild?"
"Where are they kept in captivity?"
"Do they breed ferally on mainland Europe?"
All perfectly good questions that are asked whenever a 'contentious' species turns up.
It's funny how certain species, some screaming rarities, do not elicit any such responses. Mainly passerines, waders and seabirds. They presumably pass some sort of 'acceptance filter', an unwritten and unacknowledged component wired into most birders' brains. The same cannot be said for wildfowl...
But back to the Purple Gallinule/Swamphen. This is a species that does get caught in the 'acceptance filter'. It's not a species that is considered a wanderer, with just seasonal local movements being recorded (in response to drying out of habitat). There are also reintroduction programmes being carried out in Europe - I have just returned from seeing some of these in Majorca. And, most damagingly, it is kept widely in captivity. Basically, it is not a species that anybody would consider to be a likely candidate to arrive on our shores, under its own steam, from a wild population.
(Since I wrote this post, a comprehensive Bird Guides article on the subject has been published - click here to read).
But we all like to dream. Why couldn't it be wild? Many will look back on other unlikely bird species that have turned up against the odds, and use these as ammunition to try and build a case for genuine vagrancy. And like the Chinese Pond Heron (and, no doubt the Dalmatian Pelican), the rarities committee and the BOU will sit down to sift through the evidence and judge on the likelihood of it being the real deal. But they will only be working on probabilities, of forming an educated opinion. In truth, they will be guessing.
If you play the listing game, if you are a part of the BOU or UK400 family, where you compare your list to those of others, then you need a strict set of rules to create a level playing field. Somebody up high (be it committee spokesman or benevolent dictator) will tell you what you can - and what you cannot - count. They are the rules. So you may need to sit and wait for the deliberations to be finalised, and that could be some years away. Some you will win and be allowed to tick (such as the Pond Heron). But others will be consigned to the bin under a cloud of 'unproven' or being 'suspect'.
If, like me, a list is just a personal total that might (and largely might not) be kept up to date, then the question of whether or not a bird is 'tickable' is largely redundant. The question might still be of interest, but purely on an intellectual basis. The current pilgrimage to Minsmere to see the Gallinule will be made up mostly of 'insurance tickers', birders who most probably don't believe the bird to be wild, but will go along and have a look just in case it is accepted a few years down the line. They may also console themselves with the thought that its a nice day's birding anyway, and that 'nothing ventured is nothing gained'. Good luck to them.
There is another reason to go. Just to see the bird, purely and simply. To enjoy it for what it is - a spectacular, large, colourful species. As I mentioned earlier, I saw several in Majorca last month, at S'Albufereta. They were all from an introduction programme, so are nothing but plastic. That didn't stop me getting excited whenever I came across them. They are great birds. So, as for the bird currently in Suffolk, we may never truly know its origins, but that takes nothing away from it being a stunning bird. The question of 'whether to tick it or not' then becomes irrelevant.