On the outskirts of Albion College, the limpkin, a bird species native to Florida, has captured the attention and curiosity of both seasoned birdwatchers and casual observers alike.
Albion College Emeritus Biology Professor Dale Kennedy, who first spotted the bird in early September, said that “last year, the first one ever that was recorded was seen in Michigan, and this year there have been multiple spottings.”
The bird has been spotted 14 times in Michigan this year, according to EBird, a platform used to identify birds. Kennedy said the limpkin continues to be seen around the Whitehouse Nature Center.
Doug White, who also taught biology at Albion College, said he believes the limpkin may have traveled north due to climate change; it may be part of a recent trend of displacement in bird populations.
“In New Jersey, if you saw a white ibis, it was rare. This year, they had 100 nesting pairs just north of Cape May, and it could increase,” White said. “In Jackson a few years back there was a spotting of a black bellied whistling duck, which is a Florida bird.”
Emeritus History Professor Wes Dick, who first spotted the limpkin on Oct. 1, said he’s “more worried about the limpkin’s well being than any harm it might bring to us.”
Since Oct. 1, Dick said that he’s been “bonding with the bird,” adding that he’s also caught sight of a black crowned night heron on a Whitehouse Nature Center trail.
The black crowned night heron, which according to Michigan State University’s bird tracking database, is a “year round resident in many coastal areas, the lower Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, and parts of the lower Great Lakes.” Furthermore, it commonly hunts at night, meaning a daytime sighting in Michigan is rare.
Albion resident and self-proclaimed “bird enthusiast” Thomas Hunsdorfer said that the birds may wind up in new places because of “long migratory routes, where the wind will blow or they get tired and they land where they’ve never been found.”
“Evolution can happen pretty rapidly, particularly with a species where the lifespan is only two or three years, the next generation is maybe just 24 months away,” Hunsdorfer said. “In a very short amount of time, they adapt.”
Students looking to catalog their own sightings of the limpkin and other birds may do so through eBird. Kennedy said the platform allows users to “start a checklist and record the time you saw (the bird). The nature center is what’s called a hotspot in eBird, and all of those sightings are accumulated in one database.”
“A few hours after a limpkin sighting was logged, people were already looking for it,” Kennedy said. “It shows how organized birders are.”
Another option for tracking rare birds in Albion is the Merlin app, founded by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The app allows users to answer three simple questions about a bird they are trying to identify and then gives them a list of possible birds, which has become popular in recent years.
“If you see a bird and have no clue what it is, this will get you the answer,” White said.
Students looking to get into birding are welcome to take advantage of The Whitehouse Nature Center’s trail hours.
“The nature center is just a gem of a resource (for birding),” Hunsdorfer said. “I encourage all readers – if you haven’t, come and take a walk.”