Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Spring


Louisiana Heron Portrait

Elegant Louisiana Heron at Wakodahatchee Wetlands

Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Spring 

“If you build it they will come” was not necessarily spoken of wildlife which might possibly be more difficult to coax  than the spirits of great baseball players! However, at a place called the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, Florida they have done exactly that.  I have to admit to being spoiled by places like Florida’s Big Cypress Swamp and the vast Everglades National Park. As a nature photographer, I love nothing more than feeling as if I’ve entered a wild and mysterious domain where few people venture. Places where gators disturb the surface of dark waters and egrets flutter and dematerialize into the filtered light and shadows of the cypress swamp or soar over endless marsh grasses.  Places that seem locked in time and where we can witness a Florida that existed before it became tamed for human habitation as we know it today.

 So initially I turned my nose up at the very idea of a created ecological project! However,  I was wrong  and would like to recognize not just our visceral and psychological need to experience nature but also a place designed deliberately to meld the practical and the natural.  A place which in its own deliberate and wonderful way puts the wilderness right in the middle of civilization and reminds us of what was and why we need to preserve what we have. A place that offers its own brand of adventure  with every visit.  After all, the need to set aside and protect vast wilderness areas does not exclude the possibility for nature and utility to co-exist in our communities and daily lives.

 Wakodahatchee is a man-made filtering marsh constructed by the Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department. Appropriately, its name is a derivation of the Seminole Indian language meaning ‘created waters.’ In 1991, the area consisted of some muddy grounds and  percolation ponds which were part of a waste-water treatment facility.  By 1996 the area had been stripped to bare ground, re-graded and re-designed with eight filtering ponds. It was then planted with varieties of emersed wetland vegetation such as the lovely fireflag with its large simple leaves and delicate purple flowers, pickerelweed with its lance-shaped leaves and spikes of violet-blue flowers, and arrowhead or duck potato with its slender arrow-shaped leaves and delicate white flowers.  A lush tropical Eden in the making.  Millions of gallons of treated water pumped into the site not only maintains the wetland but also are absorbed and cleaned by the coverage aquatic plants before discharge into a canal and recharging the ground-water aquifer.  A natural cycle is allowed to occur with the addition of water, absorption into the marsh bottom and evaporation. At times the wetland shines with water and at others the dark floor shows cracked and fissured as a dried up riverbed.

 A ¾ mile boardwalk was constructed and winds around the site allowing visitors a comfortable platform to view vegetation such as pond apple trees, coco plum, saw palmetto, fire bush, cord grass, bald and pond cypress trees, live oak, and sabal palm trees. These habitats attract a fantastic variety of birdlife – great blue herons, tri-color herons (Louisiana herons), snowy egrets, white egrets, cattle egrets, anhingas, cormorants, green herons, purple gallinules, moorhens, rails, coots, roseate spoonbills, woodstorks, white and glossy ibis to mention a few. Of course any Florida wetland would not be complete without turtles or a resident alligator or two! The abundance of wildlife Wakodahatchee attracts is no accident but rather of thoughtful design. The area consists of forested areas, shallow wading shelves, emergent marsh areas, open water ponds, and islands with shrubs perfect for nesting birds. Over 140 different species of birds have been sighted here, some of which are endangered.

 What makes Wakodahatchee Wetlands one of my favourite places is not the details of water reclamation, gravity wells, or how the habitat zones were designed but rather that it is so easy to forget that this particular 56 acres is a man-made ecological habitat!  Although I was vaguely aware of  Wakodahatchee prior to visiting, I did not anticipate how lovely a vista would open up before me as I hiked up the boardwalk entrance ramp and rounded the corner to see an overview of the site. Immediately I was delighted by each little scene of shrub, cypress or aquatic vegetation with a cute duck, curious turtle, or elegant egret or heron. On my first visit, the February air was cool and sweet and the water clean, smooth and free of debri. I was greeted first by the surprise of the prettiest roseate spoonbill I have ever seen wading in the water swishing its green bill side to side beneath a pond apple tree. Wandering slowly along the entire length of the boardwalk I wanted to get a feel for every inch of the place.  That first trip was also notable for the sight of a woodstork in the reeds which was swishing one pink foot to stir up some likely prey while moving along with its bill pointed into the water. I had seen woodstorks with  bills full of large fish many times but had not witnessed the foot swish technique before.

 Winding my way around I encountered what was to become my favourite Great Blue Heron nest. It was situated to the north side of the boardwalk across the pond on the top right side of the tree island. Though there is a wonderful nest much closer to the boardwalk near the entrance area, this one offered my first view of Great Blue Heron chicks. The nest itself was attractively positioned with branches curling around it with budding leaves which were very bright green against the boney white of the branches woven to form the actual nest. It was close to sunset and the westerly light shot across the landscape spotlighting the nest with the parent Great Blue and two adorable chicks whose heads just showed above the rim of the nest. They looked much like their parents already with the yellow eyes, distinctive beak with the darkish upper and yellowish lower beak. Their little heads were topped not with the smooth gray cap you see in older immature Great blues or the sleek distinctive black plumes extending from above the eye to the back of the head of the adults but rather with a spiky Mohawk hairdo like fierce little rock stars!!

 Nestling Great Blue Herons grow up very quickly and can survive on their own after about two months even though they may continue to return to the nest longer than that to be fed by their parents.   The feeding ritual is quite a sight to see and often a violent and aggressive process. Adult herons consume four times their normal diet while feeding their young and do so via a process of ingesting and regurgitation. As they grow the young birds can overwhelm the parent arriving with food by aggressively pushing siblings away and at the same time grabbing at the parent’s bill and literally pulling its head down roughly to extract the meal. It is amazing that nest mates and parents survive the nesting process. Since I observed three nestlings in more than one nest and over time only two siblings remained, I realize that not all do survive to leave the nest. Generally the first hatched is the first fed and becomes the strongest when competing for food throughout the process.

 One of the true pleasures of observing the Great Blue Heron nests is seeing how beautiful their nice new wings look. Feathers seem to grow from a parallel arrangement of blue quill structures which remind me of certain Indian headdress adornments. Like gangly teenagers the nestlings move around the rim of the nest with their knobby knees, seeming to test the wind with their long legs poised and wings outstretched, trembling at the threshold of first flight.   Audubon describes the growth of the Great Blue Heron nestlings in this manner:

 “This species takes three years in attaining maturity, and even after that period it still increases in size and weight. When just hatched they have a very uncouth appearance, the legs and neck being very long, as well as the bill. By the end of a week the head and neck are sparingly covered with long tufts of silky down, of a dark grey colour, and the body exhibits young feathers, the quills large, with soft blue sheaths. The tibio-tarsal joints appear monstrous, and at this period the bones of the leg are so soft, that one may bend them to a considerable extent without breaking them. At the end of four weeks, the body and wings are well covered with feathers of a dark slate-colour, broadly margined with ferruginous, the latter colour shewing plainly on the thighs and the flexure of the wing; the bill has grown wonderfully, the legs would not now easily break, and the birds are able to stand erect on the nest or on the objects near it. They are now seldom fed oftener than once a day, as if their parents were intent on teaching them that abstinence without which it would often be difficult for them to subsist in their after life. At the age of six or seven weeks they fly off, and at once go in search of food, each by itself.”

 Wakodahatchee will surprise you with each visit, even with its year round local resident species, there is always something new to see. Whether it is a chance to watch a young bird leave its nest for the first time, or watch a Green Heron defend its baby blue eggs from a marauding Tri-Color Heron, or get a chance to photograph a Tri-Color Heron standing so impossibly still  that you get a close up of its jewel-like ruby eye, or observe an elegant White Egret spreading its gauzy train of mating plumage while tending its nest for a perfect shot, it is all worth the trip. One photographer I spoke with said he’d been coming to Wakodahatchee for ten years.  And, it is that kind of place. How can you observe mating, nest building, the rough and tumble of baby birds growing up, witness first flight and not want to see the next generation? Approximately February through May or June the circle of life is in vibrant display.

 While I do believe that most wildlife or nature photographers tend to operate in a rather solitary manner. Wildlife is often skittish requiring both patience and alacrity to capture the perfect light and the perfect pose. Thus,  Wakodahatchee offers much to the avid bird photographer. The side benefit of the success of this project and that it attracts tourists, students, teachers, environmentalists, and photographers is that the birds are quite used to the presence of people. That combined with the proximity of the nesting colonies gives even an inexperienced photographer a chance to fill his or her viewfinder with something magical. If you are as much a people watcher as you are an admirer of Florida birdlife, then you will find it quite entertaining to watch the array of photographers lined up along the boardwalk parallel fashion with long lenses pointed at the nests.  Due to the crepuscular habits of the birds, the most popular time to arrive for photography is late day (or early day).  The lighting is spectacular and the noisy chorus of hungry nestlings only ramps up the anticipation for the show!!

 Wakodahatchee Wetlands is not just a lush park tucked into a neighborhood; it is an example of how we can serve a necessary, utilitarian need using natural processes–nature and man working together for mutual benefit.  Environmental decisions of the past cannot be undone, but we can use those mistakes to inform the future. Wakodahatchee might be a man-made Eden but it reminds us of the vast God given wilderness we have been entrusted with and of ancient processes we have only just begun to understand.  A stroll through Wakodahatchee will recharge you spiritually and perhaps even inspire further exploration of wild Florida.

Judy Lovell

April 2011

Learn More:

Check out this site for directions, tour hours, and park hours.


Some early articles in the Sun Sentinel about the building of Wakodahatchee: 

http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1996-07-20/news/9607200135_1_waste-water-ground-water-water-recharge    By NEIL SANTANIELLO Staff Writer 

http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1997-03-02/news/9702260424_1_water-utilities-wakodahatchee-wetlands-boardwalk  By RACHEL WARREN Special to the Sun-Sentinel 

http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1999-05-09/news/9905090136_1_marsh-bird-wakodahatchee-wetlands-roseate-spoonbills  By NEIL SANTANIELLO Staff Writer 

http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2009-05-06/news/0905050089_1_waste-water-reclamation-students      By Mort Mazor special correspondent 

http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2008-12-21/community/0812180347_1_wakodahatchee-wetlands-water-utilities-department-hagen-ranch-road    By Mort Mazor Special Correspondent

 About Green Cay another great Palm Beach County natural project:


Also, feel free to check out the Wakodahatchee pictures in my Florida Birds Gallery:


~ by Judy on June 1, 2011.

8 Responses to “Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Spring”

  1. Great review of the necessity of man and nature to improve the circumstances they must share, to ensure the success of both.

    Great photo; how about some additional samples.
    Jack Hardy, Saipan

  2. http://www.janthinaimages.com/Nature/Florida-Birds/2622480_TfAD5#1182555820_wXihm

    Jack, Go to the link above and it will lead you to photos of the Wakodahatchee birds. Feel free to explore; it is my pleasure to show you what a special place this is.

  3. […] with rusty brown colorations of the neck and head. The eyes and bill are yellow. Contrast this with this previously posted image of the breeding adult with its darker bill which turns quite blue when nesting (yellow otherwise) […]

  4. Your Louisiana Heron photo is simply exquisite!

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