On Saturday, August 5th I received a call from NLI volunteer, Barbara Williams, that she had just observed a Limpkin in Raccoon Creek at the Nygren Wetland Preserve.  As a birder, I know what a Limpkin is and WOW!  The network of bird alerts went out to area birders and most, if not all, had success in seeing the bird. The first record for this bird in Winnebago County, Illinois.

I went to see the bird after work the following Monday. On the trail to see the bird, I encountered some walkers and I asked them if they were there to see the Limpkin. I got blank faces: “what’s a Limpkin?” as I’m sure many of you are wondering.  A Limpkin is a very unique bird in its own family but somewhat related to Cranes (the birds!).  It is found across the warmer parts of South America and northward to Florida, that is until recently. Limpkins were specialists feeding almost exclusively on large native apple snails, I’ll never forget the first one I saw at Wakulla Springs in the Florida panhandle, then the northernmost place where you could regularly find them.  The species was non-migratory and not known to wander.

Fast forward to today and non-native snails including the popular aquarium Chinese mystery snail have escaped into areas as far north as the Midwest.  Limpkins recently adapted to feeding on the escaped snails, expanding their breeding range westward to Louisiana and then all of a sudden one shows up in marshes on the south side of Lake Erie in Ohio!  It was feeding on the invasive snails.  Reports have continued to climb, mainly in the Midwest, including Minnesota and Wisconsin. Beyond snails, Limpkins have been regularly observed feeding on other mollusks including mussels and clams. The bird at Nygren is feeding on mussels in Raccoon Creek and creating lots of discarded shells so that we can learn what it is feeding on.

Many birds have undergone large range expansions as they adapt to new environmental conditions and I predict, Limpkin will be one of those species.  Northern Cardinal is a prime example, it was originally a bird of the American South but expanded into the Midwest after the region was settled and evergreens and other plantings were added to the former vast expanse of prairies.  Yes, cardinals were not originally native to Rockford and nearly all of Illinois.

It was still great to see my first Midwestern Limpkin and add it to my list of Winnebago County birds.  I’m glad to be witnessing one of the success stories of nature’s resiliency, but that remains to be proven.  Will this just be a blip or will these become regular summer visitors to the Midwest? Will they eventually nest?  Nature is awesome and always filled with wonders and I’m thankful for organizations like NLI to protect the necessary wild places for the story to unfold.

A Message from our Executive Director, Alan Branhagen, Aug. 8, 2023

Thank you to David C. Olson for permission to use his photos of the Limpkin.

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