A Lost Limpkin?

Shallow wetlands are the perfect habitat for limpkins. Photo by Kenneth Boone

The Nature of The Lake stories feature a plant or animal found around Lake Martin. This month, I’m happily writing about a bird that’s almost never seen here.

In mid-May, my son Christopher and wife Mary Lyman were canoeing on Elkahatchee Creek, several miles upstream from where it flows into Lake Martin under the Highway 63 bridge, when they saw an unusual bird. Christopher is an accomplished bird watcher and he didn’t know what it was. But they got close enough for Mary Lyman shoot a cell-phone photo that she texted to me.

I had never seen the bird either, so I did some research and positively identified it as a limpkin … a bird native to South America all the way down to Argentina, the Caribbean and Florida, with rare incursions into southern Georgia.

Two weeks went by, and I mentioned the limpkin sighting to Willow Point birdwatcher Martha Tucker and her daughter Mary Rachel Tucker, a pre-med student at Auburn University who is taking ornithology as an elective this semester. They both got excited, and I offered to take them on a limpkin hunt.

To be honest, I thought our chances of actually spotting what could easily be the only limpkin in Alabama were slim to none. But I’m always up for an adventure on the water. So one evening, we eased up the very shallow creek to a point where it was about as wide as a single-lane road. There was a patch of water-willow in the center of the creek, and as we neared it, I saw something large and brown moving in the bright green grass. At first, I thought it was a muskrat or a small beaver, then up popped an unmistakable head – the limpkin!

We floated in closer – approaching within 10 feet of the big bird – and it went about its business of hunting for and eating snails like we weren’t even there. We spent at least half an hour and shot hundreds of photos before the light began to fail.

The fact that it allowed us so close is one of the identifying features of limpkins. They are very tame and unafraid of people; there have even been reports of people catching them by hand before that sort of thing became frowned upon.

Mary Rachel said according to the rare bird alert from Cornell University, it is the first documented limpkin sighting in Tallapoosa County ever; however, back in 2000, a limpkin was sighted five times around Smith Lake in north Alabama.

A limpkin is a large shorebird with a long neck, a long, downward-curved yellowish bill and long gray-brown legs with very long toes that allow it to walk on top of floating vegetation. Full-grown limpkins stand close to 2.5 feet tall with a wingspan of around 3.3 feet and a top weight just under 3 pounds.

The bird’s plumage is brown with large white spots on its body and wings fading to white speckles around its upper neck and head, which can make its head look gray from a distance.

A limpkin bill is unique in that it is orange-yellow close to the bird’s face and fades to gray and then dark gray at the tip. The upper and lower bill open slightly near the tip, but the tip itself touches. In many individuals, the tip curves to the right.

Why such an unusual bill?

This bird eats mostly one thing: apple snails. The freshwater snails that make up 70 percent of its diet have right-spiraling shells. As a result, the limpkin’s bill has evolved into a tweezer perfectly suited to plucking apple snails from its shell, which it often does without damaging the shell in as little as 10 seconds. If you find a pile of empty apple snail shells on the shoreline, you’ll likely find a limpkin nearby.

They will also eat other mussels, frogs, lizards, insects and worms in a pinch.

Limpkins are also unusual because they are one-of-a-kind birds. It’s the only species in its family, Aramidae. Limpkin cousins in the bird world have been debated for years, but recent DNA testing has linked limpkins to the cranes and rails.

The limpkin is called a lot of things. The word “limpkin” seems to come from the bird’s limping walk as it high-steps through vegetation on the shoreline hunting for snails.

Some people call it the crying bird – because of its haunting call – or carrao, carau, guareao or courlan – local words that sound like its call.

Scientists call it Aramus guarauna, which comes from Aramos, a heron-like bird mentioned by Hesychius, a Greek wordsmith from the fifth century, and guaruana, the Tupi (Brazilian) Indian word for a marshbird.

Whatever you call it, you won’t forget its call.

Limpkins make a series of loud, wild-sounding screams, usually at night or when the light is low at dawn or dusk. The Audubon Field Guide spells it “krrreeeow” and describes it as “a piercing banshee wail.”

Even if you’ve never been around a limpkin, you’ve probably heard it.

In the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, recorded limpkin wails were used as the call of the hippo griff. It’s also been used repeatedly as a background sound in Tarzan movies and on jungle soundtracks.

Limpkins can be monogamous or a male may have more than one mate. Males are very territorial and will chase off competitors in their breeding grounds.

Limpkins nest near water, sometimes on the ground or in shrubs or even in trees. Their nests, constructed by the males, are platforms made of grass, sticks and shore plants and are lined with softer fibers. Females usually lay four to eight eggs, and both birds incubate the eggs. A day after they hatch, the down-covered young will leave the nest. They are good swimmers, but spend most of their time patrolling the shoreline with their parents until they are about four months old, when they head out on their own as adults.

Alligators may attack adults; limpkin nests and young are preyed upon by a number of critters, including snakes, birds, muskrats and raccoons.

Limpkin populations have declined in Florida. They were heavily hunted for food at one time; then, their numbers rallied during the 1900s, but now they are threatened by development around wetlands.

And despite what the guidebooks say, every now and then a limpkin may visit the Lake Martin area.

Some information for this article came from Cornell University’s website allaboutbirds.org and the Audubon Field Guide online.