Schlagwort-Archive: Rallidae

Miller’s Rail

Miller’s Rail is one of the more commonly known so-called mysterious birds.

This species is actually known exclusively from a single drawing made by Georg Forster sometimes between 1772 and 75 during the second voyage of James Cook [and a copy of it made by John Frederick Miller, who described the bird as a new species in 1784]. The annotation just states that it is a Rallus minutus, [a small rail], [called] Maho, [and coming from] Taheitee, [Tahiti]. 

The drawing is rather a crude one, not „fieldguide-suitable“ and shows a small bird, clearly identifiable as a crake, with rather dark, almost black feathers, sitting on its red legs.

The bird could very well just be a Spotless Crake (Zapornia tabuensis (Gmelin)), which today is still [patchily these days] distributed all over Polynesia, and of course was even more so 250 years ago!


There is yet another quite detailed description supposed to be of this species, made by John Latham in 1785 from the actual type, that is now lost.:

Otaheite R[ail].

LENGTH six inches. Bill three quarters of an inch, black: the head, neck, and all the under parts of the body, dark ash-colour: palest on the chin: the upper parts, and wing coverts, deep red brown: quills dusky, edged with white: edge of the wing, and the first quill feather, white: tail an inch and a half long, rounded in shape, and black: legs dusky yellow. Claws black.
Inhabits Otaheite, and the Friendly Isles. Sir Joseph Banks.
“ [2]


The same book contains the description of a variety of the Tabuan rail [now Spottless Crake (Zapornia tabuensis)] from the island of Tanna in the Solomon Islands chain which is often regarded to as being the description of the actual type specimen of Miller’s Rail, however, the description differs quite significantly from G. Forster’s depiction.:

This varies in having the plumage more inclined to brown: the vent white, transversely barred with black lines: legs red.
Inhabits the island of Tanna. Sir Joseph Banks.
” [1]

The island of Tanna, mentioned here as place of origin of this bird, was just one of several islands that were visited by Cook and his entourage in the middle of the 18th century, and the place names given by J. Latham are very often completely wrong, however, the descriptions on the other hand are rather complete and trustworthy.

It has to be taken into account that such old books most often lack any kind of register and that they mostly just use common names but lack scientific ones, searching inside them is a long-term venture.


It is now quite well known that in former times probably all of the islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean were inhabited by endemic rails, with several islands being known to have been inhabited by more than one species, and in many cases these were congeneric species, meaning species from one and the same genus – something that today is extremely rare, which, however, is a relict situation, left behind by human-induced extictions. [3]


[1] John Latham: A General Synopsis of Birds 3(1): 235. Leigh & Sotheby, London 1785
[2] John Latham: A General Synopsis of Birds 3(1): 236. Leigh & Sotheby, London 1785
[3] David W. Steadman: Extinction and Biogeography of Tropical Pacific Birds. University of Chicago Press 2006


Depiction by Georg Forster, 1772-75
(public domain)


edited: 23.10.2019

Some Micronesian beauties

A while ago I found this Japanese book about the birds of Micronesia online while searching for I don’t no what, it originally probably included more than these three plates, however, these are the only ones that I could find and I want to share them here because they are so exceedingly beautiful.:

Tokutaro Momiyama: Horyo Nanyo Shoto-san chorui. Tokyo: Nihon Chogakkai: Taisho 11. 1922
(public domain)


I will name the birds with their current names in the order in which they are depicted.


White-throated Ground Dove (Alopecoenas xanthonurus ), female and male 
Caroline Ground Dove (Alopecoenas kubaryi)
White-browed Crake (Amaurornis cinereus)
Pohnpei Lorikeet (Trichoglossus rubiginosus)
Purple-capped Fruit-Dove (Ptilinopus ponapensis)
Micronesian Imperial-Pigeon (Ducula oceanica ssp. monacha)
Kosrae Fruit-Dove (Ptilinopus hernsheimi), juvenile
Truk Monarch (Monarcha rugensis), young male, adult male, and female
Yap Olive White-eye (Zosterops oleagineus)
Truk White-eye (Rukia ruki)


edited: 20.10.2019

Micronesia – the state of our knowledge of its native birds

Have you ever heard of Lamotrek, Ngulu, or Woleai? 


Neither did I ….

These are the names of some of the atolls that form a squadron-like swarm around the Yap Islands – you have also never heard of the Yap Islands?

Well, let me help you out here, the Yap Islands are a part of the Federated States of Micronesia, which again are a part of Micronesia which is a name for the region of small islands that lie east of the Philippines, north of New Guinea, the Solomons and Vanuatu, and west of Polynesia.


I asked for the name Woleai especially because I only recently found out that the White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus (Pennant)) ‚recently‘ expanded its area of distribution from Southeast Asia to exactly this part of Micronesia. [1]

The photo below shows that species, the name of the photographer is just a coincidence, I swear.   🙂

I wrote ‚recently‘ in quotation marks because this bird apparently appeared here already in the 1970s, but no one took any notice of that until 2009, when some westerners cought one bird on the Woleai atoll.

This event is a very good exemplary for the whole state of the ornithological research in that region – we just do not know anything.



[1] Donald W. Buden; Stanley Retogral: Range expansion of the White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) into Micronesia. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 122(4): 784-788. 2010


Photo: Lip Kee Yap

(under creative commons license (2.0))


edited: 01.06.2019

The rail that (not) existed two times

During the last few days the online newspapers were trying to outdo each other with silly headlines, headlines like … :   

The bird that came back from the dead” or: “Extinct species of bird came back from the dead, scientists find” or, the worst of them all: “Scientists discover bird that came back from the dead – A species which became extinct 136,000 years ago in a rare flood on an Indian Ocean atoll has now re-emerged in the same place“  


What is wrong with that?  

Well, a lot, but let’s just start with the statement that their isn’t any species that really goes extinct and then comes back, also not a rail species!  

We actually deal with two distinct species here, or let’s rather say, with two distinct taxa, since they may not be species but subspecies.  


May I introduce the White-throated Rail (Dryolimnas cuvieri (Pucheran)), a very beautiful rail species that is endemic to the island of Madagascar and that apparently has also colonized the island of Mayotte northeast of Madagascar.    

Photo: Bernard Dupont  

(under creative commons license (2.0)) 

This species obviously is the source of several other flightless species and subspecies that are known to have existed on many of the islands around Madagascar, such forms are known from the islands of Mauritius and Réunion west of Madagascar and others from some of the atolls that belong to the Seychelles north of Madagascar, including the Aldabra atoll.  

And the Aldabra atoll in fact is the only place where such a flightless form (subspecies or species if you want) still survives until today, this is the Aldabra Rail (Dryolimnas (cuvieri ssp.) aldabranus (Günther)).  


Long time ago, some White-throated Rails for which reason ever, took a flight to the atoll to find it uninhabited (by rails) and decided to stay there … over time the rails that were born on this predator-free island stopped using their wings and their descendants again finally became completely flightless.  

But then the Aldabra atoll just disappeared due to total inundation in the middle Pleistocene, about 340000 years before present, leading to the extinction of all endemic animals and plants, including this ‘First’ Aldabra Rails.  


Then again, around 100000 years before present, the sea-level begun to sink and the Aldabra atoll reemerged.  

Again, some White-throated Rails left their home island of Madagascar and took a flight to the north to find a new home on the now rail-free Aldabra atoll, and the story took the same direction as thousands of years before, and the final result are the recent endemic, flightless Aldabra Rails that one can see when visiting the atoll.  


So, the Aldabra atoll was inhabited by two distinct lineages of flightless rails at two different times in history, respectively prehistory, that, despite both descenting from one and the same ancestor species, still represent two completely distinct forms, whether they are referred to as subspecies or as species.  



[1] Julian P. Hume; David Martill: Repeated evolution of flightlessness in dryolimnas rails (Aves: Rallidae) after extinction and recolonization on Aldabra. Zoolocigal Journal of the linnean Society 20: 1-7. 2019  


edited: 10.05.2019

The Raiatea Swamphen

Swamphens (genus Porphyrio) are distributed worldwide (except of course Antarctica), five species are currently officially recognized. In my opinion there are actually more species, 11 to be exact, namely if the Purple Swamphen (species complex) is split into the distinct species which it actually consists of.

And then there are the extinct members including five described species and seven not-yet-described ones.


And … then there are the hypothetical ones … two so far, one of which I have already written about here:

The Tahitian Mountain Goose

The other one is way less mysterious and on the other hand much more mysterious, it is a swamphen from Ra’iatea, Society Islands.

The island of Ra’iatea lies 50 km east of Huahine, the home island of McNab’s Swamphen (Porphyrio mcnabiKirchman & Steadman), one of 12 the extinct swamphen forms known on the basis of subfossil bones only.


What do we actually known about the mysterious bird of today’s post?

Not much. There is a little note among a big listing of Polynesian (including Melanesian and Micronesian) birds, which says the following.:

319.* Porphyrio sp.
Porphyrio sp. (Schmeltz), Cat. Mus. Godef. 1874 V, p. XVI; Garrett, 1. C. note.
Island of Raiatea, Society Is. (Garrett).
This species is known from two young specimens only.
“ [1]


And that’s it.

I could not find out anything else.

But … the Australian Swamphen is known to be a trampy species and has colonized new Zealand only quite recently, maybe only after the colonization of the islands by the first Polynesians. The same species has also colonized parts of Oceania, where the ssp. pelewensis Hartlaub & Finsch has evolved in Palau and the ssp. samoensis Peale (including. ssp. vitiensis Peale) in western Polynesia.

So, the two Ra’iatean birds may in fact not have been collected on Ra’iatea at all but on another island, or they may have been taken there but may have originated from another place, maybe from Samoa, the closest place where swamphens still exist today.
… or the Ra’iatean birds were indeed a distinct subspecies or perhaps rather species that survived into the 19th century.


[1] Lionel K. Wiglesworth: Aves polynesiae: a catalogue of the birds of the Polynesian subregion (not including the Sandwich Islands). Berlin: R. Friedlaender & Sohn 1891 In: Abhandlungen und Berichte des Königl. Zoologischen und Anthropologisch-Etnographischen Museums zu Dresden Bd. 3: 1-84. 1890/91. herausgegeben von Hofrath Dr. A. B. Meyer, Director des Museums


edited: 07.10.2018; 01.01.2019

Amsterdam Island Rail – gone with the wind

When C. Jouanin and P. Paulian surveyed beds of subfossil bones on Île Amsterdam in the subantarctic Indian Ocean in 1960, they found almost only bones of seabirds, but also some bones of what later was described as the Amsterdam Island Duck (Anas marecula Olson & Jouventin) – and – the mummified body of a middle-sized rail.  

The two just wrote some kind of short note [1], that later, in 1977, was translated by Storrs L. Olson.:  

A mummy of a small rail was discovered in a tunnel in a lava flow, under a block that had no doubt protected it from moisture. A sketch was made in situ, as well as taking measurements of the beak (22 mm), the tarsus (40) and the middle toe without claw (34), but the mummy fell to dust when an attempt was made to pick it up. In this case one cannot infer the former existence of a rail peculiar to New Amsterdam, although it would be perfectly likely (endemic species of this order exist on most isolated islands), for the measurements cited coincide with those of a skin of a Corncrake (Crex crex Linnaeus) in the British Museum collected 100 miles to the south of Madagascar. Still, this identification is not wholly satisfactory: the mummy did not have the bulk nor the heavy bill of a Corncrake, and it is most regrettable not to have been able to remove it.“ [2]  

The Amsterdam Island Rail very, very, very likely, if not absolutely definitely, was an endemic species, that indeed may have descended from the trampy Corncrake, a species that inhabits parts of western Asia and Europe, but on its migrations, pops up almost everywhere on Earth!  


Imagine how many such endmic rails may have existed before mankind spread all over the planet, it must have been thousands …!  



[1] C. Jouanin; P. Paulian: Recherche das ossements d’oiseaux provenant de l’île Nouvelle-Amsterdam (Océan Indien). Proceedings of the XIIth International Ornithological Congress, Helsinki: 368-372. 1960 
[2] Storrs L. Olson: A synopsis of the fossil Rallidae. In: Sidney Dillon Ripley: Rails of the World – A Monograph of the family Rallidae. Codline. Boston 1977  


edited: 15.10.2018

Bruner’s Rail

Bruner’s Rail (Cacroenis inornatus Bruner) is a very enigmatic species of rail supposed to have been endemic to the Tuamotu Archipelago, whose name repeatedly appears in listings of extinct birds and other publications. [4]  


Yet, this species has never existed, but see for yourself.:  

The name first appears in the “Field guide to the birds of French Polynesia” from 1972, obviously the first book about the birds of French Polynesia, and full of errors, some of them bad, others worst. [3]  

The story begins right with the discovery of the Cocos Finch in 1843.: [1][2]  

This bird, which is in all probability a female, is from Bow Island, and is, I believe, the only insessorial form that has been brought from thence. Only a single example was procured, and its principal interest consists in its forming an additional species of a small group of birds inhabiting the Galapagos, to which islands they had hitherto appeared to be peculiar. … 
Bow Island has truly little to boast of in its ornithology, since the only birds seen by us during a residence of six weeks at this Atol coral island were doves, the above new species of Cactornis, plover, a few black and white tern which appear attached to these situations, and herons; and none of these were at all numerous. The Cactornis inornatus was usually noticed about the lowly bushes of Petesia carnea, the succulent fruit of which most probably constitutes its chief food.


Bow- or La Harpe Island, both are old names for the Hao atoll in the middle of the Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia, and the plant mentioned in the text, Petesia carnea, is now known as Psychotria carnea (G. Forst.) A. C. Sm., a species that is native to Fiji and Tonga, and that has never existed in the Tuamotu Archipelago.  


The bird is mentioned in the “Field guide to the birds of French Polynesia” [as Cacroenis inornatus] as being confusing and obscure but also as being small, speckled and generally brownish in appearance; it appears in a checklist at the end of the book [this time as Cactornis inornatus] as having been introduced to the Archipelago, which is complete bullsh**!  


The Cocos Finch is now named as Pinaroloxias inornata (Gould), however, how this finch-like tanager finally ended up as a extinct rail species is still not known to me.  


[1] John Gould: On nine new birds collected during the voyage of H.M.S. Sulphur. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 11. 103-107. 1843 
[2] John Edward Gray; John Gould; John Richardson; Richard Brinsley Hinds and others: The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Sulphur: under the command of Captain Sir Edward Belcher, during the years 1836-42. London: Smith, Elder 1843-1846 
[3] Phillip L. Bruner; O. G. Dykes: Field guide to the birds of French Polynesia. Bishop Museum Press 1972 
[4] Greg Sherley; Rod Hay: Review of avifauna conservation needs in Polynesia. Bird Conservation Priorities and a Draft Avifauna Conservation Strategy for the Pacific Islands Region 10-17. 1999  


Cocos Finch (Pinaroloxias inornata), female  

Depiction from: “John Edward Gray; John Gould; John Richardson; Richard Brinsley Hinds and others: The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Sulphur: under the command of Captain Sir Edward Belcher, during the years 1836-42”  
(public domain)  


edited: 26.09.2018