National Geographic : 1958 Jan
Limpkin, the "Crying Bird" that Haunts Florida Swamps which seem indifferent to color, but for peo ple-who tend to stop and chat with a wild life photographer, frightening off his quarry. I was able to approach within 100 yards of the spot by rowboat. Then I walked through the damp growth to the ruined boat that would be my blind. I was well smeared with insect repellent and supplied with sandwiches, water, and camera equipment. By 6 a.m. I had my camera mounted on its tripod between my knees, the lens just clearing the moss covered gunwale and focused on the heap of snail shells. Only my head and shoulders showed above the hulk as I sat down to wait. An hour and a half passed. The sun rose higher, playing directly upon the shell pile. Conditions were just right-except for a sub ject. Not a limpkin was in sight. Another half hour went by. Then I heard something land on the shore to my left-just outside my field of vision. I turned my head a fraction of an inch at a time. On the shoreline just 20 feet away I saw a limpkin looking directly at me. For long minutes I fought to keep from blinking. He stood with his weight upon one leg, the other resting slackly; he did not bring his foot up under him in the manner of other waterfowl. Then he turned and began to walk off slowly, still favoring the relaxed leg. This was the famous limpkin limp. He disappeared into the bushes. I did not move. Ten minutes later two limpkins suddenly appeared where the first had been. Both stood motionless, looking directly at my ex posed head. None of us moved for a while. Then the birds relaxed. One stretched his right wing, fully extending his right leg under it. The other scratched the side of his head with one of his long middle toes. Nighttime Banshees Primp by Day I looked in amazement as these screaming banshees of the night preened themselves like any barnyard fowl. With nightfall they would again become creatures of superstition, but now, in the warm sunshine, they were quiet, apparently contented. Another limpkin appeared from behind the bushes, observed me closely for a few minutes, and relaxed with the other two. Then one waded out into the water up to his belly, probing the swamp bottom with his bill and feet. Twitching tailfeathers punctuated his cautious, jerky movements. His head went under the water-and came up again grasping a snail by the outside flange of the shell (page 118). Slowly, deliberately, the limpkin waded ashore and mounted a partly submerged log only 15 feet behind my old boat. In a crevice of the log he carefully lodged the snail shell, its opening turned upward. Then he stood for a few moments, quietly, one leg bent in the characteristic lame position (page 117). Per haps he was waiting for the snail to relax, as I had waited for him to do. His head suddenly darted down; the upper point of his opened bill stabbed behind the snail's trap door. The limpkin gave a little sideways jerk of his head-and the snail came out of its shell. Bird Dines Like a Gourmet Instead of bolting his favorite morsel, he held it in his bill for perhaps two minutes. As though in anticipation of his meal, he looked about, bringing to mind a French gourmet who waits, fork and snail in hand, to savor his delicacy (page 119). Then, apparently satisfied with this ceremonious prelude, the limpkin swallowed the snail. Soon all three birds were hunting and feeding. The first time I tripped the shutter of my camera, the modest click startled my subjects. They jumped off the ground, and regarded me nervously. I waited a tense quarter hour be fore making a second exposure. By then the birds had lost some of their wariness and scarcely noticed the shutter noise. Working as unobtrusively as possible, using no light meter, holding my movements to a minimum, I exposed a whole roll. Reloading the camera was a real test of the confidence I had so painfully won. It took me 10 minutes to change film. The limpkins continued to hunt and feed, slowly, deliberately. Each ate his own snails without regard for the others. I was using my third roll of film on this rarely viewed scene when dark clouds threat ened. Large raindrops soon began to splash around me. As I thrust my camera equip ment into waterproof bags, the timid limpkins dispersed into their familiar bushes. That evening after the storm I listened as a shrill cry drifted across the darkened water. Even now it startled me. This was the drab, gangling bird I had watched all day. Yet I could almost hear it as another voice: that of a little boy calling plaintively-a little boy lost in the swamp forever.