December 30, 2012

Florida Escargot

Ohio birders head to Florida for many reasons, but especially to see a handful of birds that can't be seen anywhere else in the United States. Two of these, the Snail Kite and the Limpkin, are confined to very specific habitats that also support their primary food supply, the apple snail.

Here is a photo of one of the snails:

Now these snails are pretty strange creatures in that they have both a gill and an air sac that functions as a lung, basically making them amphibious. This allows them to survive in areas that alternate between drought and high rainfall, such as is found in Florida marshes and other tropical areas. If they are in water that is low in oxygen, they can climb on vegetation near to the surface and extend a siphon to get some air, while still hiding from their arch enemies, the Snail Kites and Limpkins. 

So when we go to Florida we are always on the lookout for these two birds, and we know to look for them in places that can be expected to have apple snails. Sometimes we see the kites in marshy areas near the Everglades, but not on our most recent trip to Florida a few weeks ago.
On this trip, as we headed north, the last likely spot to find these birds was a small park that we have found in the past to be quite dependable. It is called Marina Park in the town of St. Cloud, just south of Orlando. Bordering East Lake Tokopekaliga, it has a marshy edge on its eastern side that is well worth scanning for a variety of birds.

After a nice picnic lunch overlooking the lake, we decided to get serious about checking out the local birds. Soon we heard a harsh scream and located a Limpkin skulking in the grasses. (According to Wikipedia, its vocalizations have been used for jungle sound effects in Tarzan movies!)

This large bird has a wingspan of over 40 inches but can hide easily in the marsh vegetation. Males and females look pretty much alike. They will eat a variety of mollusks, insects, crustaceans and other animals but their primary food source is the apple snail, which they deftly extract from its shell with their long beak. At this park they are not too shy, so it is possible to get decent photos.

After enjoying the Limpkin we continued to scan the marsh for a Snail Kite. These birds are about the size of a medium-sized hawk and tend to fly low over the vegetation searching for snails. I don't have a good picture of a male; they are almost entirely black with a distinctive white rump spot and an red eye. This link has a good photo.

We were really fortunate and saw a far-off adult male and then an immature bird perched in a tree not far from us, within digiscoping distance:

Note the extremely hooked beak, great for extracting snails from their shells! I did manage to get a fairly decent video of the entire process, and near the end you can see the white feathers at the base of the tail:

As you can see, this bird has bands on its leg. These birds are extensively studied and because their U.S. population is so small they are listed as both State and Federal endangered species. Their extremely specialized habitat requirements tend to keep the population low. So we were very excited to get such a good view.

This small park has a lot more to offer. After looking at the kite we recalled that last year we saw Sandhill Cranes here. Turning around, we saw this individual walking toward us:

What a huge, gorgeous bird! Our day was complete when soon we heard the amazing trumpeting of a small flock of cranes overhead:

Sandhill Cranes do occur quite regularly in Ohio, particularly during migration and a few pairs usually breed in the state. The sound and sight of a flock never fails to be thrilling.

Other animals that we've seen in this park include Florida Cooter turtles, marsh hares, Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Wood Storks, and a variety of butterflies.

We had such a great time on this trip to Florida, and our visit to this park was one of the highlights. Here is another view of the marsh, home to a wide variety of wildlife including apple snails and their hungry predators!


  1. That's so interesting about the snail so well adapted to the marsh. I couldn't watch the video of the snail kite. When I clicked on the arrow, it said "This video is private."

  2. Ack! It is set to "Public"--not sure why you got the private notice. I'll see what I can do :)

  3. Wakulla Springs State Park, near where we live in north Florida, used to have a large population of limpkins and apple snails. It was also the location for the Tarzan movie starring Johnny Weismuller, so that may be the basis for the association of limpkin calls with Tarzan sound effects. When the apple snails started disappearing from Wakulla Springs and the Wakulla River a few years back, the number of limpkins decreased in similar fashion. Now, there are no more limpkins and apple snails to be found in our area, but we do now host a sizeable migratory population of manatees in north Florida. The water flowing from Wakulla Springs is at a constant temperature of 60 degrees F, so it is a favorable environment for the manatees. I have never read a definitive account of why the apple snails disappeared. Does anyone know?

  4. Hi Judy--thanks for your note. We saw our first limpkin ever at Wakulla Springs many, many years ago! Here is what I was able to find out in answer to your question:

    "Limpkins disappeared from Wakulla Springs State Park nearly 15 years ago after presumably occupying the river for thousands of years. A 1994 flood during the apple-snail breeding season seemed to drive limpkin numbers to single digits. The arrival of invasive hydrilla in 1997 followed by a drop in water quality may have provided a final shove. Occasionally, a lone limpkin returns to Wakulla for a rare but brief visit." That is from this recent article, and it has more interesting info about limpkin populations in the area:

  5. Deb, thanks for the research and the answer to the apple snails disappearance was right in my own backyard! The changes in the Wakulla River were the effects of hurricanes, I believe. The manatees love to eat hydrilla, so that would explain why they have moved here in ever increasing numbers.

  6. Your post makes me want to explore Florida. I have only been there once or twice---now I think I would like see these parts of the state. I can't believe how much you saw in such a small (relatively) area--Linda Hoffman

  7. Nice to see that your blog is still around! I enjoyed the video and photos. After hearing about the Tarzan-like sound effects produced by the limpkin, I had to listen to it at, and it was impressive. Locally I think our woodpeckers do the best impression of jungle bird calls.