There’s a rare birding phenomenon that happens every spring at Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, Florida. The 50-acre preserve turns into a full-fledged nursery, chock full of nests, eggs and chicks anxious for their next meal.
The unique thing about the Wakodahatchee Wetlands is access and diversity. You don’t even need binoculars or a telephoto lens to see the nesting Wood Storks, Great Blue Herons, Anhingas, Great Egrets, Green Herons and more.
You can stand under a shaded gazebo on a boardwalk 12 feet from the action. This is not a zoo, but it sure feels like one.
On two visits to Wakodahatchee in the past week, Anhinga chicks wrapped their necks around their moms’ so tightly it was hard to tell one from the other. Great Blue Heron babies are simply comical with oversized eyes and feathers like dandelion fluff. But it was the dozens of newly hatched Wood Storks who stole the show.
Storks feed their young by squirting “pre-digested” fish directly into their mouths. And when these downy chicks are hungry, everybody hears about it. Disproportionately large yellow beaks fling wide open, and you can even see their tiny tongues as they cry.
Bawling Wood Stork chicks sound oddly like distressed human infants. When one starts up, they all join in. It’s loud, and just as things start to get obnoxious, the mother Stork reaches over with a long pink toe and strokes the baby. Ornithologists call this “comforting behavior” — pretty much what any good Mom would do.
Wood Storks breed for life, and at least one parent stands guard at all times to shade the chicks and sprinkle water over them if they need cooling off. They’ll also intervene if a Great Egret from a nearby nest happens to get too close.
Here’s a video that puts you in the middle of the action:
Every day from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., nature loveres and fitness walkers flock to the free Wakodahatchee Wetlands at 13270 Jog Road in Delray Beach, 21 miles south of the Palm Beach International Airport. A boardwalk runs three-quarters of a mile through the heart of the 56-acre wetlands. More than 175 species of birds have been recorded here, including the popular Purple Gallinule, rails, waterfowl, bitterns and migrating warblers.
It’s also home to more than 100 types of plants and trees.
Wakodahatchee Wetlands opened in 1996 and was created out of a wastewater utility property. Each day, this Palm Beach County water reclamation facility pumps approximately 2 million gallons of highly treated wastewater into the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, which in turn acts as a percolation pond, returning billions of gallons of fresh water back into the water table throughout the year.
When this facility was built, the Wetlands area was intentionally designed to be a perfect nesting theater for wading birds. It’s a win-win for the environment, creating a critical and carefully maintained breeding ground in a time when suitable naturally occurring habitats are shrinking.
The result at Wakodahatchee is a rookery that compresses an astonishing array of species into a relatively small and visible arena.
Many birds return to the same nesting grounds every year, and they have grown accustomed to the constant parade of humans. During our visit, Tricolored Herons and Storks landed on the boardwalk railing almost within arm’s reach. It’s hard not to get a great photo, even with a cellphone.
Any visit to Wakodahatchee is a treat, but the best time to go is breeding season from about mid-February to the end of April. There doesn’t seem to be any way to get specifics – there are no tour guides, no written materials or signs, and no hotline to check for what’s hatching when. Even scouring the Internet, we couldn’t find details beyond the general breeding span.
The only reliable information came from other birders. The day we visited, 40 members from a Fort Myers birding club had arrived by bus for their annual pilgrimage. One man said the club always comes during the first week of March and has never failed to see lots of nests, eggs and hatchlings. Several folks who live in the neighborhood told us they walk the perimeter several times a week, and the chicks seem to get noticeably bigger day by day.
But this isn’t a “blink and you’ll miss it” operation. The Wood Stork, for example, takes 6 days to lay as many as 5 eggs, and after nest-sitting for 28 days, the hatchlings arrive. The chicks stay in the nest for 50 to 55 days before attempting to fly. (We found this timeline on Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North America website.)
Even the birds still in the process of building nests at Wakodahatchee provide a kaleidoscope of colors as the breeding season transforms these birds into exotic versions of themselves. It’s like somebody went overboard at the makeup counter. Great Egrets get brilliant green eyes and flowing feathers suitable for a bride. The unassuming Cattle Egret’s eyes turn bright red, there’s a carrot of a nose and a bushy hairdo that looks like it should belong to a troll doll.
All in all, this is a birding experience worthy of Disney World – with a lot of the fireworks, many of the characters, and all of the crying babies.
Here’s a gallery that includes a little bit of everyone on displays at these precious wetlands: