A tropical visitor to Illinois is creating a buzz among suburban birders

There was a time when birders had to travel to Florida, or points further south, to glimpse a limpkin.

But this year, Illinois avian enthusiasts needn't travel far to observe the heron-like bird, which is closely related to cranes and rails and typically inhabits swamps and marshes in tropical climates like Argentina, Mexico and the southern U.S., specifically the Sunshine State.

Over the summer, a limpkin took up residence at Glencoe's Chicago Botanic Garden.

The rare bird's arrival created a buzz among birders, Managing Ecologist Jim Jabcon said.

“It's been hanging out here since mid-August,” said Jabcon, who believes the limpkin is the same one spotted in the Skokie Lagoons earlier this year.

Matthew Cvetas, former president of the Illinois Ornithological Society, concurs, noting that the lagoons are near the garden and the Skokie River lies adjacent to it. He said more than 300 observations of the bird at the botanic garden have been submitted to eBird , an online database that compiles observations from scientists, researchers and other bird enthusiasts from around the world.

“Limpkins have been showing up all over the place,” added Cvetas, who said the first confirmed Illinois sighting of a limpkin was in 2019 at a small lake in downstate Olney. Another Illinois sighting took place two years later.

This year, 23 out of Illinois 102 counties registered sightings of the bird, he said.

Field ornithologist Matthew Hayes, of the Illinois Audubon Society, said limpkins have been reported this year in Rockford, Dubuque, Davenport, Starved Rock, Emiquon/Havana, Champaign, St. Louis, Lake Pana, Carlyle Reservoir, and at Horseshoe Lake and Mermet Lake in southern Illinois.

A member of the Daily Herald's Suburban Wildlife Facebook group posted photos of a limpkin spotted last month at the Cook County Forest Preserves' McGinnis Slough in Orland Park.

Without tracking devices, documenting the limpkins movements is difficult.

“They may be in one location on one day and then fly 100 miles or more and be in another location on the next day,” Hayes wrote in an email. “Birds, like all animals, need food, shelter, and water to survive. If any of those resources start to disappear, then they will move to find those resources.”

The solitary limpkins are brown with white spots and a long, yellowish beak. They feed on mussels and snails and have an intriguing way of hunting and eating, Cvetas said.

“The way it goes about its business using its beak to break open the mollusk ... is not something you see every day,” he said. “It comes out when it's hungry and disappears into the shadows.”

He and Jabcon suggest limpkins arrived here in search of food. Jabcon also believes the birds' arrival this far north may have something to do with the population rebounding in recent years.

“Any time you can get a positive note about a species coming back, it's always good,” Jabcon said.

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