Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, Florida, is a wetland created in the 1990s as the final stage in a Palm Beach County wastewater treatment system. Each day the county discharges about 2 million gallons of highly treated wastewater into the wetland, which serves as a percolation pond, returning clean water back to the water table.
This may sound crazy, but Wakodahatchee has become a hugely popular birding destination, part of the Florida Birding Trail, and justifiably so. It is an avian oasis literally amid the Florida coastal sprawl of condos, homes and shops that completely surround it.
This wetland may be artificial, but the wildlife it attracts is there because it found the habitat inviting. Birds can come and go as they please; there is nothing captive here, thank goodness.
You can see alligators, turtles, rabbits and fish, but the incredibly abundant birds are the draw.
I arrived about 7:30 on an unusually chilly south Florida morning, temperature 39. A three-quarter-mile-long boardwalk takes you throughout the 50-acre wetland, passing open water, patches of forest, small islands, abundant marshland.
No sooner had I stepped on the boardwalk than a very accommodating red-shouldered hawk alighted on a tree branch not 15 feet away, almost at eye level. I had my DSLR around my neck with a 150-400 lens. Click, click, click.
Passed a small island studded with snags. Wood storks perched on virtually every exposed limb. How close? You could almost count the feathers.
Two discoveries for me were the black-bellied whistling duck and something called the purple swamphen. I had not even heard of the purple swamphen, much less seen one.
The whistling-duck appears to be native to the southern great plains and part of Texas, though rare, and introduced into Florida and North Carolina. I saw a couple of dozen feeding in shallow water. This is a colorful species, with red bill, gray head, cinnamon body and of course the black belly.
I momentarily mistook the swamphen for a purple gallinule, but the swamphen has an orange frontal shield and orange legs, neither which the gallinule has. Moreover, it is non-native, comparatively new to Florida and expanding. Wakodahatchee itself is newer swamphen habitat, I gather from what I learned later.
Without any real effort I saw easily 30 species in two hours, among them green heron, glossy ibis, pied-billed grebe, yellow-rumped warbler, and boat-tailed grackle.
For the first hour of so on this chilly morning it was mostly me and other birders, many with telephoto lenses. As the sun rose the boardwalk became busy with people, many out for an exercise walk.
If I have a reservation about Wakodahatchee birding it is that some of the birds can almost seem tame they are so used to people walking nearby. But, best I could tell, they are not in fact tame, just acclimated to humans. Would I rather see birds in more “natural” habitat? Yes. Especially memorable for me was seeing a breeding fieldfare in Canada’s Northwest Territories mountain wilderness. Likewise, seeing Lewis’s woodpecker in Idaho wilderness little changed since Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition discovered the species was, for me, a special connection with America’s early history. We need wilderness.
Still, is there a big difference in seeing a yellow-rumped warbler on a small tree overhanging the water in Wakodahatchee or seeing a yellow-rumped on a small tree overhanging the water on a pocket of Connecticut habitat greatly manipulated over the years? I don’t think so.
I happily added the purple swamphen and the black-bellied whistling duck to my birding life list.