April showers bring May flowers... but what about March? For the South Florida birding community, March is that time of year when the Florida wading birds begin mating to bring into this world the next generation of feathered friends. One of the best places to visit and witness painted displays of plumage and mating ritual dances is the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, Florida. These manmade wetlands, owned and managed by the water utilities company of Delray Beach, are situated on over 50 acres in Palm Beach County. Every day over two million gallons of treated water is pumped into the wetlands, preserving the environment for birds and other wildlife to thrive. You can observe dozens of species of birds as you walk along the 3/4-mile boardwalk that winds through shallow marsh and ponds.
The “stars” of the show are the wood storks. As I get out of my car and approach the entry to the park, I can hear the storks chattering. My camera is ready and so am I... let the party begin. Just as I get to the first marshy area of the boardwalk, a wood stork soars in with a small tree branch in bill. He’s so close that I can feel the wind from his wings as he passes closely over me. He lands in the first rookery and presses the branch into a freshly made nest. This nesting tree and the next rookery that I encounter are so close that I can reach out and touch the birds. Of course, this is a “no-no.” We must always respect the wildlife and their environment. Yet, I’m always amazed at how “tame” these birds seem with humans so close.
A pair of Wood Storks just hanging around.
A baby Wood Stork calls out to his parents for dinner.
During mating season at Wakodahatchee, hundreds of wood stork couples will build nests and mate in the rookeries located in the deep pond areas. Each clutch can have 1-5 eggs, but from what I’ve seen over the past few years visiting the refuge, three eggs seem to be the norm. As these eggs hatch, the sounds from hungry baby storks and continuous chattering and bickering adults can be heard throughout the park. It’s quite the spectacle!
Wood storks are not the only species that finds Wakodahatchee favorable for breeding. Egrets, herons, ibis, and anhinga can also be found nesting in the wetlands. I bump into a fellow photographer who tells me that there are a couple of roseate spoonbill pairs nesting in the park, but I did not see them during my recent visits. No matter the species, all of these birds come in “full mating gear” displaying brilliant colors and performing their own special mating rituals.
A Great Egret shows off his bright green lores.
And you think that you get bad hair days? How about this male Anhinga?! He's all dressed up with feathers flaring looking for a date.
As I reach the second pond, I spy (with my little eye) a male great egret beginning his ritualistic mating dance. This beautiful bird is all out. He bows his long neck deep and thrusts it up repeatedly, while his long plumage fans out like a peacock trying to attract that mate. This is one of the most beautiful rituals in nature to witness. As I observe the bird through my lens and waiting for the perfect moment to snap a few shots, I see the great egret’s typical bright green lores (that area of skin on birds between the eye and bill). This coloring is the typical indication that this bird is in the midst of his mating cycle. I capture a few shots and continue my journey down the boardwalk looking for more subjects to shoot.
Great Egret dancing and prancing!
Baby Egret siblings are VERY competitive! You'll often see them bickering and fighting with each other in the nest over personal space and food.
After watching two of the larger species in the park, I can’t forget that the smaller waders are not without their own beauty. After passing by the great egret, something “shiny” catches my sight in the tree next to the boardwalk. It’s a male glossy ibis and his mate. She’s on the nest while he is standing proudly at her side. The shine that caught my eye is from his iridescent back and wing feathers, which are much more heightened in color for mating season. I stand up on the first rung of the handrail to get a better look. She doesn’t move, so I don’t know how many eggs she is sitting upon. However, the male spreads his wings wide as if to pose for a photo opp. I am more than obliged and manage some great shots of this beauty. Not only is his plumage glowing, but so is his “mask.” This glossy’s mask stands out in bright white with a tint of light blue.
This "flashy" male Glossy Ibis started showing off by spreading his wings for his photo opportunity. This bird's plumage has a natural sheen to it... almost iridescent, when the sun hits him right.
The Tri-Colored Heron has some of the most beautiful plumage during mating season. And look at how his bill is on display for mating as well!
Another colorful resident of Wakodahatchee is the tri-colored heron (shown above). I find these small waders in the park (and throughout Florida) year-round. The tri-colored heron’s plumage glows deep in hues of violet and blue and their lores become bright blue in color. I have taken many photos of this bird in the past and feature them in my portfolio. There are several nests scattered throughout the trees in the park.
I have made my way to the back of Wakodahatchee. This grassy shallow marsh area is home to purple gallinule, small egrets, moorhens and coots, and songbirds. I see a few glossies hanging out on a tuft of grass in the marsh, picking away through the shallow water and mud for small crabs and fish. No spoonbill sightings today, as this is the area where I see them the most in Wakodahatchee. It’s a bit crowded, but that’s expected on such a beautiful day. A young girl calls out, “Grandma. I see a bird in a nest!” And sure enough, there’s a small nest in one of the small cypress trees close the boardwalk. To my surprise, it's a female red-winged blackbird! She sat long enough for me to get some nice close-up shots, but no eggs in the nest... at least not that I could see.
"Here I sit, waiting for my babies to hatch and see the world." Thank you to that little girl (mentioned in the story)! I would've never seen this female red-winged blackbird sitting in her nest.
The red-winged blackbirds are here!!! This photo was taken only a couple of days after they hatched.
One never knows what to expect with nature. It’s genuine and unpredictable. As I pass through the third (and final) deep pond, I observe two great blue herons in a tussle on the island tree. Weeks prior to today they had young great blues at their side, which have probably since left the nest to begin their own circle of life. Today the couple is fighting over the possession of a large fish. On shore side, two groups of black-bellied whistling ducks are cackling over the shaded territory that they both wish to occupy. And not far away is a large alligator just waiting for one of these cute little guys to make a mistake.
"Let go of MY lunch!" Here, two Great Blue Herons are fighting over a large fish.
I have come “full circle” at Wakodahatchee and find myself back at the first grouping of rookeries. I spend a few last moments in the park shooting a few of the wood stork hatchlings. Then, I catch a glimpse of another small wader, the cattle egret. These little birds have such a character about them... not to mention a rainbow of color on display for mating. Hidden by the cypress branches I still manage to see the bright, rusty orange crown. Patiently I wait, knowing that this bird is going to come into focus. And he obliges, showing off that orange plumage on his head and back along with those deep hues of purple, red, and pink on his bill.
Look at those colors! The mating colors and plumage of the Cattle Egret really set this guy above the rest.
It was a good day. As a professional wildlife and landscape photographer, I find that this park provides a plethora of opportunity to capture many species of the bird community in one place at one time. I can say that I have never been disappointed in coming here. As always, I leave looking forward to my next shoot at Wakodahatchee Wetlands.
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Bird’s Eye Gallery has partnered with House of Travel (a travel management company in Aventura, Florida) to provide private tours of some of South Florida’s most beautiful (and off-the-grid) locations. Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Green Cay Wetlands, and Daggerwing Nature Center are part of our “Photography and Birding Series” of locations where I will guide you on how to photograph the birds and other wildlife in their natural environment, as well as help you identify these beautiful animals. Please contact Alley Peters at House of Travel for more information about this educational tour and others that I host... phone: (305) 931-3002, emails: Alley@houseoftravel.net or Micah@birdseyegallery.com.
Here are a few other shots from my recent visits to Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Delray Beach, Florida during this year's breeding season.
"Striking A Pose"... I don't see this little long-legged fellow often at Wakodahatchee, but it does make sense. The Black-Necked Stilt can often be found in shallow, marshy areas such as that at the back side of the park.
During the breeding season at Wakodahatchee, the Alligators will lay in wait below the rookeries and along the shorelines of the large ponds hoping that one of the smaller birds or hatchlings make a mistake. It's a sad thought, but this is a part of the "circle of life" in the Florida wild.
While walking along the boardwalk at the back of the park, I almost missed this Wilson's Snipe blending in with his surroundings.
During my weekend shoot, I noticed an "un-birded" Wood Stork nest with eggs. This is very odd because once eggs are laid, it's rare to not see one of the mating pair tending to the nest. The next day I followed up on this nest to find neither mate on the nest. I can't answer why, but the nest had been abandoned. This is a sad phenomenon.
Although Wood Storks can live over 15 years of age in the wild, only about one-third of the clutch will ever see flight.
As I was observing the Wood Storks in one of the rookeries, I heard the beautiful song of this Common Yellowthroat nearby. It took me a while to capture this little guy as he ping-ponged through the reeds near the water's surface.
The Red-Winged Blackbird is a common resident of the park and Florida. They love the grassy-marsh areas and you'll often see them flitting about.
Last but not least, this blog was "all about the babies"... and this baby Green Heron looks on as his mommy feeds his baby sibling in the background.