Limpkin (Aramus guarana)

unnamed-4Limpkin (Aramus guarana)
This month, to celebrate the opening of the Nature Centrer at the Celery Fields, I have chosen one of the most iconic birds of that marvelous  wetland area, a bird that many will travel far to see – the Limpkin. You could hardly visit the Celery fields without encountering one of these amazing birds, and it is even to be found in more urban settings in and around the Sarasota area. It may surprise you then to know that this bird is actually listed as a species of special concern in Florida.
At one time Limpkins were common throughout Florida but they were almost extirpated due to over hunting. New laws and conservation efforts prevented this from happening and the population recovered. But there are still major threats to the Limpkin population due to the decline of their primary prey, apple snails. They are also in danger due to habitat destruction and wetland drainage –  another reason for celebrating the Celery Fields and for looking after it, as heavy accumulations of non-native vegetation (mainly hyacinths and cattails) in foraging areas can prevent the Limpkin from finding its food.
The Limpkin is a large long legged bird of southern swamps and marshes. It is the only species in its family and is thought to be most closely related to cranes and rails. Because of its long toes it can stand on floating plants and when wading walks slowly with an awkward gait described as ‘slightly undulating’ or ‘high stepping’ and this is said to give it the name of Limpkin.
Its size, shape, habits and spotted brown plumage makes it easy to identify. It is though, often heard before being seen, the Limpkin’s loud wail or screaming cry being unmistakable and highly evocative. It is usually solitary and can be secretive, however at the Celery Fields it is very often seen clearly at the water’s edge, or even perched on the boardwalk rail, posing for the camera!
The Limpkin reaches the northern limits of its range here in Florida, occurring from peninsular Florida and southern Mexico through the Caribbean and Central America to Northern Argentina. Florida is the only state in the U.S. where Limpkins breed. Here it feeds almost exclusively on apple snails. The Limpkin’s long slightly decurved bill is slightly open near the end to give it a tweezer-like action in removing the snails from their shells. When a Limpkin finds an apple snail it carries it to land or very shallow water and places it in the mud, the opening facing up. It deftly opens the little disc with which the snail can seal its shell (opercaulum) and extracts the snail, seldom breaking the shell. It takes 10 to 20 seconds for the bird to accomplish this, and it often leaves piles of empty shells at favored spots. Visitors to the Celery Fields can sometimes come across these empty shells. Incidentally the snails at the Celery Fields are almost exclusively the invasive variety, Pomacea canaliculata, the native ones being extirpated here and in other parts of Florida, Myakka State Park for instance. This however does not bother the Limpkins, which are, we are all happy to note, thriving at the Celery Fields.
Glynnis Thomas