with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida

Wakodahatchee, Florida

Office: PBC Water Utilities Department
2065 Prairie Road
West Palm Beach, FL 33406

Phone: (561) 641-3429

Fax: (561) 641-3472

web sites:

Bird lists: Wakodahatchee Bird List

Hours: It is open everyday from dawn till dusk, seven days a week, no charge. One hour tours are available, booked in advanced. Call (561) 641-3429. Community organizations and school groups may request tours scheduled at least one month in advance by calling (561) 434-5372.

Getting There: Three miles East of the renowned Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Wakodahatchee Wetlands is located in suburban Delray Beach on the east side of Jog Road between Woolbright Road and Atlantic Avenue. Exit Route 95 onto Atlantic Avenue West; continue to Jog Road; turn right; park is on the right, on the southeast side of Palm Beach County Water Utility Department’s Southern Region Operations Center at 13026 Jog Road, Delray Beach.

Best Time: Year round photo opportunities. Spring and summer offers nesting Least Bittern, Green Heron, Common Moorhen, Red-winged Blackbird, Pied-billed Grebe, Tri-colored Heron, Great Blue Heron, Black-necked Stilt, Boat-tailed Grackle and more. Fall and spring migration brings Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Storks, Wrens, Warblers, Shrikes, and more. Winter is the best for access, cooler temperatures, bird migration, and mating seasons. Hawks, eagles, ducks, kingfishers, and shorebirds are common during the winter. Excessive winter rains and occasional storms can bring flooding.

Famous for: Wakodahatchee has become a hot bird photography spot due to the easy access to the birds accustomed to humans. The Least Bittern, a secretive bird, is found commonly during the spring and summer as they nest in the wetlands from May through August. A three-quarter mile elevated boardwalk winds through three of the eight ponds at this uniquely constructed wetland built in 1996 by the Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department as a water reclamation facility. The wetlands offer refuge and home for birds, snakes, fish, turtles, alligators, and more. The diverse water ponds offer a variety of water areas for a wide range of wildlife, fowl, birds, and plant life.

How to visit: Dusk is a great time for bird returning to the wetlands for the night. Cooler temperatures wake up alligators and other animals and birds on the prowl. Dawn is another active time for feeding and capturing the birds before they leave for the day. Walk the boardwalk repeatedly as things change as the day progresses. Work from a tripod at eye level for a wider perspective, and get low, even lying on the boardwalk, for an eye level view. The boardwalk rail can also be used to prop up the lens. The boardwalk is narrow in many places. Walkers and joggers shake the boardwalk so have patience and wait until they pass. If your timing is right, take a tour of the wetland to get a better feel for the area and habitat. NOTE: There are no restrooms, so come prepared.

Habitat: The 50 acre created wetland area consists of 39 acres of wetland and 11 acres of upland. The area serves as a constructed water treatment facility, using natural environments to filter the water. The treatment areas are called treatment cells which range in size from 2.3 to 10.9 acres. Each of the eight treatment cells are modified to support a variety of vegetation types including aquatic, emergent, transitional and upland plants. The different habitat zones include deep, open water areas, habitat islands, emergent marshes and upland berm areas.

Wildlife: About 120 different bird species visit the wetlands. Twelve of these are considered threatened or endangered. At least nine species nest on the site. Egrets, herons, gallinules, anhinga, ibis, limpkin, duck, teal, moorhen, coot, and others make the wetlands home. Occasional visitors include Brown and White Pelicans, Osprey, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Bald Eagle, Virginia Rail, and Least Tern. You will also find alligators, and other reptiles and mammals, as well as a wide variety of insect life.

Equipment: Long lenses (500 or 600mm) are best for full frame closeups of most of the birds and wildlife, though 300mm lenses are also useful. Wide angle lenses offer habitat perspectives, though care must be taken to watch for posts, buildings, signs, and other distractions. Working in the low light situations of early morning and dusk, a tripod is a must. Consider bringing a bean bag for working from the boardwalk railing and to support the camera while lying on the boardwalk. A flash with a flash extension is also good for eye catchlights and working with low light levels.

NOTE:Take care with your stance and tripods to not block the boardwalk. Due to recent confrontations between walkers, joggers, groups, and nature photographers who visit the wetlands en masse, keep a low profile and avoid confrontation.

The quiet of evening is broken by the rush of wings as a cloud of Ibis, Herons and Grackles by the thousands fill the sky. Wood Storks join them, awkward on land but a thing of grace in the air. Below, among the confetti-like duckweed, purple tasseled pickerel weed, and clusters of bulrush and cord grass, Purple Gallinules and Wood storks fish the shallow waters of the wetlands, photo by Brent VanFossen Least Bitterns dip and bow their heads in their search for food. Red-winged Blackbirds twitter as they flit between the reeds and cattails. When morning comes, small Green Herons blend in with the green grasses as they slowly stalk their fishy prey. Tall Great Blue and Tri-colored Herons are statues among the lilies and green water. An alligator swims by, its unique silhouette cutting a gentle ripple across the water.

The water treatment plant is present in the background of the wetlands, photo by Brent VanFossen You are not in the wilds of the Everglades or even the tropics of South America. You are in a created wetland and upland habitat area aptly named Wakodahatchee or “created waters” in Seminole Indian language. Located in the central east side of Florida, near Lake Worth in Palm County, and Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, about 45 minutes northwest of Ft. Lauderdale, this unique man-made wetlands services as a haven for native and visiting wildlife and birds, and serves the nearby community as a natural filter marsh turning the local bad water into irrigation water for agricultural lands.

Pickerellweed is found throughout the wetland, photo by Brent VanFossen The area was once overrun with invasive non-native vegetation such as the Brazilian pepper, Australian pine, melaleuca and cattails thriving amid the natural percolation ponds, draining and clogging the ponds with their unresisted growth. Using innovative and experimental designs, the Wakodahatchee Wetland Project now consists of 50 acres of converted percolation ponds with eight treatment cells comprising 39 acres of wetland area and 11 acres of upland berms which surround and separate the treatment cells. The individual treatment cells range in size from 2.3 to 10.9 acres. Each cell was designed to support a variety of vegetation types including aquatic, emergent, transitional and upland plants. Therefore, several habitat zones were created including deep water, open water areas, habitat islands, emergent marshes and upland berm areas. The “dirty water” is processed through these natural looking treatment cells which filter and clean the water. The benefit to wildlife is a new home and food source.

Softstem bulrush are found throughout the shallow wetlands, photo by Brent VanFossen Noticing the wetlands built in 1996, birds arrived by the tens of thousands, in all colors, shapes, and sizes. The wetlands and its supervisors, the Palm County Water Utilities, work hard to maintain a balance between the native plants and wildlife. Many birds consume the new plant growth faster than it can replenish. With such an abundance of birds, competition for food is intense. Alligators have begun nesting, resulting in about 60 new hatchlings each year, many of which are consumed before they can reach a defensive size. They are slowly increasing their population rate. Marsh hares, turtles, raccoons, river otters, snakes, and frogs have made a home here, too.

You can get close enough to photograph the feet of coot, photo by Brent Vanfossen Threaded throughout the different treatment cells is a one-mile boardwalk, sometimes floating on the water and other times piered up above. The birds wander through the cells, appropriate to their food and nesting interests, ignoring the many humans sauntering along the boardwalk. Bird and nature photographers quickly flocked to the area, eager for the easy-to-access bird portraits. Local joggers and walkers also quickly found the area as a change to their street routes. Unfortunately, the two groups have clashed heads more than once as they compete for space on the boardwalk and quiet. Photographers have to fight the thundering vibration of the boardwalk as the joggers pound by, and the joggers have to maneuver through tripods and camera gear laden photographers. The concerns of both parties have reached the local news, causing debate within the community about whose right is more right than the other. Since the birds appear to be unaffected either way, their views on the matter are not considered.

We do need to take care to not disturb the wildlife or the local human residents, especially as nature photographers, since our equipment and tools of our trade tend to be seen as intrusive. Take care to keep your equipment close to you so it doesn’t block the boardwalk. Use a tripod, but keep it out of the pathway. Many photographers enjoy lying on the boardwalk for an eye-to-eye perspective with the birds, but do choose positions that don’t interfere with traffic or put others at risk.

A boardwalk runs through the wetlands allowing easy viewing of the wildlife and plants, photo by Brent VanFossenEach treatment cell offers a variety of plant life in addition to the birds and animals. In the deep water areas you are more likely to find lots of coots and ducks. Among the open water areas, you will find water fowl and diving birds. The habitat islands and emergent marshes are excellent locations for finding nests of rails, moorhens, and sparrows, as well as warblers or even least bitterns. Shallow shelves are good for herons and egrets. Islands with shrubs and snags to serve as nesting, roosting and basking sites . The upland berm areas offer forested areas good for some small mammals, too.

The elusive sora can often be found hidden in the bulrushes, photo by Brent VanFossenAlong the railings of the boardwalk you will often catch herons roosting. Soras and limpkins are often found nesting 20 feet from the boardwalk, and the wetlands are a very popular place for viewing Least Bitterns on a frequent basis. These birds are normally very secretive and difficult to find. They are most abundant during the spring and summer. From May to August, there are good opportunities for close photography of the Least Bitterns nesting with their babies.

Boat-tailed grackles do their mating rituals at Wakodahatchee, photo by Brent VanFossen As the boardwalk is so short, make numerous trips around during various times of the day to catch the different birds and wildlife. Early mornings and late afternoons are prime times for photography because of the attractive light and the activity of the birds and wildlife. There are observation areas which are shaded along the way to rest out of the sun.

As you explore the area, you may stumble upon Bernie Krzywada. He is responsible for maintaining the 50 acres of wetlands surrounding the boardwalk and has been with the Water Utilities Department for more than 16 years. He might be cleaning or doing repair, or watching the birds and animals himself. He is an expert on the area and usually glad to answer any questions or point out any wildlife worth seeing. Interpretive signs along the boardwalk will also help you understand more about how the wetlands work as a water treatment filtration system and about the different habitats.

A little blue heron waits for dinner in the shallows, photo by Brent VanFossen Bring lots of film and moderate to long lenses with a solid tripod. Long lenses like 400 to 600mm will often allow closeup portraits of the birds, but moderately long lenses will also allow capturing the full subject fairly up close. In the more wooded areas, you will have low light conditions, especially in the early and late hours, so a lens with a wide aperture is best then. A flash is good for some fill and helping provide a catchlight. During the day, the open water areas are also good for reflections and photographing examples of the flora.

Bring sun lotion and mosquito repellent, especially during the hotter seasons. A hat and sunglasses are a must during most of the year.

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