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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: Beauty is in the ear of the beholder

One of the great delights in any naturalist’s work is introducing others to something new. Sometimes this takes the form of a rare sight seldom seen by people, while other times it comes in the guise of a little-known fact about something more familiar. But whatever the new thing is, there is a great joy in sharing it.

This week, I am going to indulge myself and share something really new with you. As it happens, this sharing of information will coincide quite nicely with a wonderful new experience of my own.

Here in the United States, the limpkin (Aramus guarauna) is a bird that is rarely seen outside of Florida. Even there it is described as being rare to uncommon. As you move south into the Caribbean, you enter deeper into limpkin territory. Central America is full of limpkins, as is South America. The only portions of our southern sister continent that limpkins cannot use are those dominated by the Andes and the Pampas.

Now, I may just be lucky, but my mother-in-law (Fran, who lives in Boynton Beach, Fla.) has one of those homes where this uncommon bird is a regular. In fact, if you listen to the residents of her community, you would think the limpkin was a banshee sent from the darkest depths of some tropical purgatory to haunt and torment them. Limpkins, you see, are rather loud.

But beauty is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder and I find the call of the limpkin to be both hilarious and delightful. It is loud, there can be no argument on that point, but it is the sound of one of Florida’s original and ancient inhabitants. I’ve always thought it was rather unfair of people who have just moved into a new area to start complaining about their new surroundings.

Many of you may be familiar with the nocturnal exuberance of the northern mockingbird, a member of the mimic thrush family that can often become overwhelmed with the excitement and promise of the spring and burst into song at 2 o’clock in the morning. Well, it turns out that the limpkin is also very fond of singing in the moonlight and when it sings, there is no missing it.

The limpkin stands only 2 feet tall, but I have noticed, like so many birds, that it conveys a larger-than-life image when it is standing right in front of you. The same bird, held in your arms, would seem small, delicate and frail. Let it loose upon the ground, however, and the bird seems to swell with the vibrancy of life.

I have seen limpkins many times, but always in the “artificial” setting of Fran’s lawn. I have pictures of limpkins on the manicured grass and I must say that they look “wrong.” These are birds of marshes, where fish, frogs and snails must be poked and prodded for while wading in foot-deep water. A limpkin on a lawn, wild though it may be, still looks out of place.

So it was with great excitement that I was finally able to cross paths with a limpkin in a more natural setting. Susan and I were visiting the beautiful Green Cay Wetlands and as we strolled along the boardwalk, we turned a corner and found a lone limpkin foraging in the emergent grasses not 30 feet away. Other visitors of this wonderful natural area seemed indifferent (or oblivious) to this bird, but my eyes were wide with excitement.

Unlike ibises and wood storks, which seem to move at a quick, almost panicked pace when foraging, this particular limpkin was being a bit more casual. The bird’s head would go down for a few exploratory jabs of the beak and then the head would come up again. The bird would pause, look around, take a step forward and then repeat. After being so thoroughly frustrated by a glossy ibis earlier in the day, this was a real treat.

I spent more than 20 minutes with this bird before it finally decided to fly off to look for greener pastures. I thought I had some good images, but the sun was bright and the view screen on my camera was filled with so much glare that I decided to wait until I got back to Fran’s house to enjoy the second stage of photography — reviewing and deleting.

I was initially a bit concerned with the results of my efforts. Even with a bird less than 40 feet away, the capture of a good image is tricky. Movements that seem harmless when the photos are being taken turn into deal-breaking blurs that render the photos useless for anything but a column on useless photos. Wait a minute ... a column on useless photos ... hmmm ...

Anyway, it started to get pretty tense there for a moment, but then I moved my way into a collection of photos that made the grade. One that I selected for this column is the classic portrait that I try to collect for every species of bird that I photograph. I even managed to get the bird’s entire left leg into the frame as it slowly walked through the grasses.

The other photo I managed to capture was one depicting a scene that has been recreated in paintings and illustrations by many artists. The limpkin, turning away from the observer, is grasping a round snail shell in its beak, the occupant of which is about to learn that its days have come to an end. To me this is a much more intimate photo of a bird trying to make a living in a watery world full of alligators.

While searching through my books trying to uncover the origins of the limpkin’s name, I came up with one adorable little factoid and another mysterious one. The common name “limpkin” is a little mysterious to scholars, but the general consensus is that the word “limp,” was chosen because of the bird’s odd walk. The suffix “-kin” was added as a diminutive, suggesting that the bird was the “little limper.”

The mysterious part comes into play when one considers the species name “Aramus guarauna.” The genus name, “Aramus” is of unknown origin. To my recollection that’s the first time that has happened in all the years I’ve been writing. The species name “guarauna” was selected by Linnaeus. It turns out that there is a tribe of people native to the delta of the Orinoco River (in Venezuela) that call themselves the Guarauna. Since the limpkin can be found in this region, then it was a suitable name.

There are only two weeks to go until most schools enjoy their winter break, which means there are only two weeks before many of you may be heading for warmer climes. So I shall indulge my own interests in birds of the south for a while longer before returning once again to the birds that we can see right in our own backyards. If you have any requests, just let me know and I’d be glad to focus my attention on answering a question you might have.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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