At least I found one. One limpkin probing for apple-snails along the upper Wacissa River just east of Tallahassee. It was shy, moving deeper into the interior floodplain forest as I approached in my kayak, and it didn't do any characteristic clucking. It was the first and last one I would see this summer.
Four years before, on a warm evening like this one, I found about a dozen along this same stretch. Some were solitary while others were in pairs. A limpkin along nearly every bend. Most didn't seem shy. They probed for snails or perched on logs out in the open. Occasionally, they would call to each other-krow, krow, krow. The river echoed limpkin as it had for millennia. What happened? What changed in four years time?
Limpkins are intriguing brown and white speckled wading birds that emit eerie calls and clucking sounds. They have specially curved beaks that enable them to open golf ball-sized apple-snail shells, and since apple-snails are their primary food source, that specialization may have spelled their demise in some areas. If apple-snails decline or disappear, so do limpkins, similar to the plight of endangered Everglades snail kites in South Florida.
Apple-snails-and limpkins-may not have disappeared entirely from the Wacissa River, but kayakers started noticing the limpkin decline for a couple of years. And soon, biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) confirmed the trend in their annual surveys. From 13 recorded limpkins in 2008, three were counted last year and only one this year. No one knows for sure why their numbers started dropping. Could it be the recent drought? Or vast mats of smothering non-native hydrilla? Water quality? Human disturbance? Predation? The timing and effect of herbicides (for hydilla control) on apple-snails?
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.
To lure limpkins back, biologist Jesse Van Dyke spearheaded efforts to restore the park's apple-snail population, and early results were promising. Clusters of the light pink apple-snail eggs, often seen on tree trunks and cypress knees, were on the rise until Tropical Storm Debby's floodwaters dealt them another blow. The limpkin remains as a type of mascot for Wakulla Springs, like Henry the pole-vaulting fish, and one of the park's jungle boats is still named after the bird.
Because limpkins are also found in Central and South America and the Caribbean where their numbers are much greater, they are not considered endangered as a species. In Florida-the only state where limpkins breed in the continental United States-limpkins are protected and have been designated a species of special concern.
Is there hope for limpkins on the Wacissa River?
"The limpkins have come back because we stopped eating them," one lifelong Wacissa resident said with a chuckle last year at a public rally of river-lovers opposed to Nestle's plans to tap the river's springs for bottled water. Limpkins and other wild birds were once heavily harvested throughout Florida during lean times before conservation laws were enacted and enforced. Limpkins were nearly eradicated as a result, but they made a slow recovery. Today, the causes of decline are not so easy to pinpoint, and no one has started counting apple-snail egg clusters on the Wacissa like they did at Wakulla Springs State Park.
While limpkin survey results on the Wacissa cover too short a time span to determine a long-term trend, let's hope that whatever caused the limpkins' recent decline will reverse itself-with our help, if necessary-and scores of limpkins will again find the Wacissa a suitable home, along with Wakulla Springs State Park.