“Which way are you headed? There are river otters right under the boardwalk up the way. They may still be there if you hurry.”
“Looking for the La Sagra’s Flycatcher? It sits in the patch of palms at the north end of the parking lot, 100 paces or so from the entrance. Been there on and off for the last month.”
These are the type of helpful comments you’re sure to encounter along the boardwalk at the Green Cay Wetlands in Palm Beach County, Florida. Or, for that matter, at the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, its sister park a short drive away. It was actually commentary from a stranger on the Wakodahatchee boardwalk that got me to the Green Cay Wetlands in the first place. I was taking photos of Great Blue Herons building their nest when a gentleman informed me that someone had lucked onto a bobcat mother and kittens at Green Cay just that morning.
“Green Cay?” I’d asked, “Is that near here?”
I couldn’t imagine anything better than where I was – Wakodahatchee is a veritable bird rookery with islands of pond apple trees laden with herons, egrets, cormorants, anhingas and even wood storks at different stages of courtship, nesting, rearing young or the daily rituals of feeding, preening or roosting. Yet it wasn’t the first time Green Cay had been recommended to me so I decided to check it out.
Even before getting out of my car I could tell that Green Cay was a big deal. The entrance gate is prominent and leads into a well-signed, multi-lane parking lot that can easily hold a couple hundred cars; quite a contrast to Wakodahatchee’s small and comparatively rural-feeling parking area. The entrance walk strolls past a butterfly garden and through a wooded hammock (South Florida’s forest) before opening onto an inviting nature center. The nature center is small, but sleek and informative with live animals, colorful exhibits, exuberant docents and an inspiring gift shop. The true draw though is the 1.5 miles of boardwalk beyond.
The boardwalks at both wetlands are literally bustling with birders, photographers, exercising walkers, families on nature excursions and retirees loudly discussing all important issues, such as their favorite New York delicatessen. Crowds gather around Purple Gallinules balanced on reeds, Red-bellied Turtles lined up on a log, stealthy Soras lurking in shadows or an impressively large American Alligator lazing on the banks of an island. There are birds and reptiles at every turn and the locals know exactly where to find the “hot” critters of the moment. One regular pointed out the exact branch where the coveted Yellow-breasted Chat would land and moments later, as if on cue, this rarity appeared in that spot.
There’s something special about the passion and excitement that both these wetlands evoke in visitors from far and near. It’s the camaraderie that develops in shared nature quests. It’s the high concentration and visibility of its wildlife. It’s the lack of shyness in these human-tolerant creatures. And frankly, I think it’s partly the fact that these wetlands are living proof that humans and nature can happily coexist. These are, after all, human-made wetlands developed for our benefit.
The word Wakodahatchee is the Seminole Indian term for “created waters” and that is exactly what both of these parks are. Tucked within Palm Beach County’s dense urban matrix, these wetlands were created by the utility as natural filters to aid in water treatment. Emulating South Florida’s natural wetland ecosystems, the company created open ponds, shallow marshes, tree islands, cypress domes and upland forests on compact acreage where they perform their innate function – cleaning water. These wetlands provide the final cleansing for a water reclamation plant as planned, but they’re also a much-needed oasis for wildlife, plants and nature craving city residents.
These human constructed wetlands have been so successful at wildlife attraction that they’re now stops on the Great Florida Birding Trail and exceptional sightings from these wetlands are constantly touted on the Tropical Audubon Society’s Bird Board, the ultimate birder’s report in southeast Florida. The Green Cay parking lot and the cars sprawling well beyond the designated parking area at Wakodahatchee are testaments to how many people flock to these wetlands. The place literally has groupies, neighbors who visit several times a week, if not daily, and are anxious to point out highlights. They’re a generous crowd and on my last visit, I had at least three people approach to inform me that the Friends of Green Cay was hosting a photo contest that I should enter. Just like the place itself, it was designed for communal fun and education with open judging by professional photographers to aid in the process. How could I resist?
Green Cay was still in full swing the night of the photography judging. Birders clustered around the potential La Sagra’s Flycatcher palm at one end of the parking lot, a family lingered in front of the known river otter spot, pairs of fitness walkers chattered down the boardwalk and the nature center was abuzz. There was barely an open seat in the theater room as the 500 or so brilliant entries previewed across the movie screen prior to selection. The youth category was first to be evaluated and a special award was given to the youngest ever entrant, a three-year old boy whose entry hadn’t quite made the final cut but who certainly deserved the encouragement. The audience oohed and ahed appropriately as the finalist entries graced the screen, occasionally admonishing the judges for their decisions. A pair of old men sitting beside me reminded me of Statler and Waldorf, the sarcastic balcony duo from the Muppets. One elbowed the other when we reached the Point and Shoot Animal category, his finger shot across my view as he excitedly indicated one of the photos while gruffly reporting that that one was his. Caught off guard, his buddy nearly toppled his chair. Calamity was avoided and the pair left in a twitter of glee and disappointment when the photo didn’t make final placement. My heart sank when we reached the Advanced Animal category. There were pictures of an alligator ripping the head off a bobcat, a baby alligator on mom’s forehead and bobcats wrestling. I hadn’t even seen the river otters at Green Cay, much less a bobcat. Surely I had no chance against the groupies! We reached my category, Advanced Birds, and I held my breath. Had I even made the finals? My heart pounded as I saw my shot of a Limpkin standing on a log in the rain come up on the screen. I heard positive feedback from the judges, but the next shot was of a Roseate Spoonbill coming in for a dramatic landing. I sighed. Yet another charismatic species I had yet to see at Green Cay, surely this one would win. It was my turn to nearly topple my chair as the winners were announce and I won!
If I was a fan of Green Cay before, I’m a huge fan now! I would certainly be one of the groupies if I lived closer by…
Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands – 12800 Hagen Ranch Rd, Boynton Beach, FL
Wakodahatchee Wetlands – 13026 Jog Road, Delray Beach, FL