The crowd quickly gathered — a dozen or so people, cameras in hand — as an 8-foot alligator came ashore.
“Alligator!” someone yelled as camera shutters clicked. “It’s got a turtle in its mouth!” said someone else. “Poor turtle,” said another.
But hungry alligators are just one of the sights at Wakodahatchee Wetlands in western Delray Beach. The wetlands are primarily known as one of the best bird-watching sites in South Florida.
“It’s a slice of the Everglades,” says Robert Nelton of Palm Beach County’s water utilities department. “You'll see everything you would see in the Everglades but in suburban Delray Beach.”
More than 150 species, from migrating birds to native tropical birds, have been spotted at Wakodahatchee. Five years ago, there were no wood storks in the wetlands. Now, says Nelton, 60 to 80 nesting pairs of wood storks live there year-round “because the hunting is good.”
Large green iguanas hang in the trees. Turtles and frogs live in the water. The trees on one island have herons, egrets, anhinga and cormorants all nesting together.
Admission is free. The place is so popular that cars from California to Canada wait in line for parking spots. Other visitors come by bus from retirement villages and schools.
The name Wakodahatchee is derived from the Seminole Indian language and translates as “created waters.” Every day, the Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department’s Southern Region Water Reclamation Facility pumps approximately 2 million gallons of highly treated wastewater into the man-made, 50-acre wetlands.
Signs along the wetlands’ three-quarter-mile elevated boardwalk explain how the ecosystem works and identify plants, turtles and common birds. In spots the path gets within a few feet of nests.
During bird season, November to May, 500 to 600 people visit daily. Some peer at the nests with binoculars, others use point-and-shoot cameras or cellphones, while others carry cameras with telephoto lenses attached to tripods. Topics of conversations range from the newest camera equipment to advice on best places to spot the birds — until someone yells “bird flying!”
Then all you can hear is the din of camera shutters snapping open and shut.
▪ Wakodahatchee Wetlands: 13026 Jog Road, Delray Beach; www.pbcgov.com/waterutilities/wakodahatchee/. Free. Open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily.