It was difficult to discern the winners in this extraordinary staring contest of wildlife fanciers and fowl.
No question that the wood storks were less fascinated with the mob of photography nerds than we were of them. Nor did they blink or in any way deviate from their nesting activities, to the delight of everyone assembled at Wakodahatchee Wetlands in western Delray Beach.
Count on the same to be true any other day at this remarkable meeting place with the natural world in the unnatural setting of suburban Palm Beach County, Fla.
Wakodahatchee is one of two nature preserves just a couple of miles apart where you can come face to face with a stunning array of birds as well as alligators, turtles and a few other critters. The entrance to Green Cay Wetlands is 3 ½ miles away, so we were able to spend quality time at both in the same afternoon.
One of the notable aspects of the areas is both are constructed habitats fashioned to serve as filtration zones in the wastewater reclamation process. Wakodahatchee comes from a Seminole Indian phrase meaning “created waters.”
In addition to contributing to the supply of fresh drinking water, the two areas have provided desirable habitat for some 150 species of birds, some that migrate to the area, others native to the Everglades region. They also provide the public with an opportunity to observe and enjoy them from wooden boardwalks that loop through the wetlands.
There is no fee to enter either area.
On a balmy Saturday in February, scores of wood storks were nesting in treetops throughout the 50-acre Wakodahatchee. One tree cluster was within 20 feet of the boardwalk, providing up-close viewing of their domestic routine. While some birds remained on the nest, their mates occasionally took flight to fetch a twig or food.
As amusing as the birds themselves was the brigade aiming over-sized telephoto lenses to record their every clack of beaks and flutter of wings. One informed a companion she was going to have to move farther away because her lens was too much due to the close proximity of the birds.
Another woman nearly toppled over as she wrestled to set up a massive tripod to support a beastly SLR and lens sufficient to put the moon in a teacup. Around the corner a dozen photogs were firing shutter bursts of every move by a solitary purple gallinule.
It is understandable that both suburban wetlands are popular with amateur photography clubs and professionals. But the subjects are close enough to get satisfying results with a modern cellphone camera.
Likewise, it isn’t necessary to be a hearty outdoor type hiking through rough terrain to get up-close and personal with the wildlife at the two preserves.
The Wakodahatchee Wetlands, which opened in 1996, encompasses 50 acres of previous wastewater utility property. The Southern Region Water Reclamation Facility pumps about two million gallons of highly treated wastewater daily into the area, which serves as a percolation pond to return fresh water back into the water table.
The three-quarter mile boardwalk is part of the of the Great Florida Birding Trail, a suitable avenue to mingle with birds galore.
Green Cay Wetlands, spanning 100 acres, has three loops on a well-maintained boardwalk over the marsh, ranging from one-half to 1.3 miles.
The boardwalk ranges out from a spacious nature center with a gift shop featuring live animal exhibits and offering informative displays about the area, nature-related workshops and photo contests.
The two areas in western Palm Beach County provide the best opportunities for a close look at Florida wetlands environments you can get without wading into a swamp. And you can beat the price.
Spring is the best time to see the widest variety of birds in pleasant weather for strolling the boardwalks.
Green Cay Wetlands and Nature Center
12800 Hagen Ranch Road, Boynton Beach
Boardwalk open daily from sunrise to sunset. Nature center exhibits open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.
13026 Jog Road, Delray Beach.
Open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.