First snowbirds show up in SW FL

Limpin’ limpkins!  The heat of the summer has finally started to dissipate a little here in southwest Florida.  The cooler autumn air is undeniable overnight and in the early mornings.  Some of Peace River Wildlife Center’s seasonal volunteers have started their southern migration, for which we are extremely grateful.  And our patient load is getting less routine.  We are seeing more migratory species in the avian population as well as some of the good old home boys.  Like a limping limpkin with a leg injury.

Limpkins are rail-like birds found predominantly in Florida.  Their diet consists almost exclusively of apple snails, which in the U.S. exist year-round only in southern Georgia and Florida.  The Limpkin has a long, slender bill, twice the length of its head.  The last inch of the lower bill curves noticeably to the right; the upper bill also curves but slightly less.  This specialized instrument allows the Limpkin to corkscrew into the right-handed chamber of the apple snail. 

When apple snails are not available during times of drought or flooding, limpkins will eat other snails and the occasional fresh water mussel.  The Limpkin has long, slender legs and toes, which it uses to wade into fresh water in search of snails.  It can also walk atop thick mats of vegetation to find snails attached under the leaves of certain water plants.

While limpkins are an uncommon patient for us at PRWC, they are an indigenous species.  At this time of year we are also seeing many migratory birds that truly challenge our identification skills.  One of the more unusual species seen at PRWC this week is a summer tanager.  While the male is a bright, solid red, our patient is a female with greenish yellow feathers.  This medium-sized songbird is probably migrating through the area or got blow slightly off-course by the recent storm.  Tanagers are unique in their predilection for eating bees and wasps, catching them on wing and avoiding being stung during the meal.  They also eat other insects, berries and fruit. 

Another unusual patient is a Blackburnian warbler.  This small songbird hails from northeastern U.S. and southern Canada.  It winters in northern South America and is likely migrating through this area now also.  Our patient is a female or first year male, with pale yellow throat and breast and white bands on darker wings.  She is an insect-eater, but will also take fruit and berries.

While we are reputed to have common yellowthroats indigenous to this area, they are uncommon to us as patients at PRWC.  Right now we have a female with olive upper parts and yellow throat and chest.  She lacks the distinctive black mask of the male.  This warbler eats primarily insects and spiders. 

Our final “snowbird” is a Swainson’s thrush.  This species breeds as far north as Alaska and northern Canada and winters in South America.  This medium-sized songbird has a white eye ring, olive-brown upperparts, and a white breast with dark spotting.  Since there is no appreciable difference in the sexes, we are unsure whether our patient is male or female.  This species also eats insects and berries.

All of these migratory birds are suffering from minor head trauma or soft tissue damage in their wings.  Most of them have flown into windows of buildings.  They should all be able to be released back into their flocks to continue along their migration routes soon.  The limpkin has a soft tissue injury to his leg and will be released back into the area from which he came. 

These unique species are thrilling to work on for us at PRWC, but always a challenge to feed.  When we do not have the specific diets required by a certain species, we are able to gavage (or tube feed) a slurry that has the appropriate nutritional value, but the birds are not thrilled with that.  We would be grateful for donations of berries and snails to help us feed these guys until they are ready to go.  But, please, keep your spiders at home.  While the birds may like them, I am not a fan and prefer to keep a healthy distance between myself and any arachnid.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

Limpkin with a injured leg
Limpkin with a injured leg
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