I became acquainted with "my" limpkin a couple of years ago. I couldn't figure out why I kept waking up 12 minutes before the alarm clock went off. I heard some repetitive noise that sounded like something electronic with dying batteries, but I couldn't match it up with anything in the house. Then one morning I was weeding the flowerbed when a loud scratchy honk startled me. I looked down and around and up, and there perched on the gable of the neighbor's house was a limpkin. Sure surprised me. I thought they were shy -- what was this crazy bird doing in the 'burbs?
Off and on since then I sometimes see a limpkin, sometimes a pair, hanging out at the retention pond down the street. They've been there most days, lately. It's a pretty good retention pond for bird watching -- anhingas, osprey, hawks, ducks, moorhens, ibis, several types of herons and egrets, seagulls -- and for watching other critters like turtles, rabbits, and fish. I keep my distance from the alligator.
Limpkins frequent pond banks and wetlands, since this is where they find their favorite foods -- apple snails, mussels, lizards, fish, and such. They are attractive birds, in an understated way, with dark brown bodies and white spots on the neck and shoulders. They have knobby knees and a crooked grin. The limpkin's beak has a gap, and sometimes a twist, which helps it separate snail bodies from snail shells. Limpkins can be found in the Caribbean and Central America, but in the United States, they are pretty much only in Florida.
Another apple-snail-eating-gotta-come-to-Florida-to-see-it bird is the Snail Kite, which looks rather like a hawk. The snail kite also has a special beak, with a big hook at the end, to get at its dinner. Florida's human population also used to eat apple snails, the remains of which are found in prehistoric shell middens and mounds. Apple snails are big freshwater snails found in the wetlands, where they in turn eat grass, duckweed, and algae.
Limpkins were nearly hunted to extinction in Florida a hundred years ago, but have since made a comeback, although they are still a species of concern. The snail kite is not faring as well, and is an endangered species. Habitat loss is a contributing factor -- both bird and snail habitat. Figuring out what water levels should be to encourage snails is an important part of Everglades restoration.
It's a good day when I see a limpkin. It's my son's favorite bird -- he's impressed by things that are "rare" or "only" -- and having limpkins nearby makes him think that Florida is a pretty special place. Of course he's right.