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Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach named best park in Florida | Video

As a refuge for wildlife, including 178 bird species, Wakodahatchee Wetlands is truly a natural gem — one so special that it was named the “best park” in Florida by Money magazine.

The Delray Beach preserve’s boardwalk immerses visitors into a bird paradise, flooding ears with the calls of wood storks, a threatened species, and placing rare wading birds less than a foot away.

Derived from a Seminole Indian phrase meaning “created waters,” Wakodahatchee Wetlands was created in 1996 as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Restoring what was once 114 acres of farmland back into wetlands reduced the amount of wastewater coming out of Palm Beach County Utilities’ water-treatment facility and helped recharge the local aquifer system. The now 56 acres of wetlands purify 1 million gallons of daily wastewater.

On a recent weekday, Barry Heimlich, a former president of the South Florida Audubon Society, was enjoying the scenery at the park. “There is no group of birding tourists that come to South Florida and don’t make it a point to come here. That’s how special it is,” Heimlich says.

Today, the wetlands are managed by Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department, which says it is thrilled with the Money magazine designation.

Shawn Reed, the department’s public information services manager, says in an email, “The ability to see wildlife, much of which is within an arm’s reach (not that one should ever attempt to touch any wild animal) of the boardwalk that traverses the 50 acres is what makes Wakodahatchee unique. Visitors can see over 178 different species of birds as well as a variety of other wildlife, including a 12-foot alligator, turtles, rabbits, fish, frogs and raccoons.”

That 12-foot alligator has a name, Big George, Heimlich says. Big George has an equally large friend, whom locals call Crooked Jaw. Heimlich says the two gators can be seen cruising around the wetlands and sometimes catching their lunch.

Heimlich visits the preserve at least twice a month, sometimes more depending on the season, since spring and fall are more popular for birds. He says that on Sunday mornings, 300 people come out to the preserve.

Money magazine made its designations based on a Yelp algorithm that considered the number of positive reviews made by visitors and its business star ratings. From there, the site took travel costs and location into account. Admission is free to the park, which has a three-quarter-mile boardwalk for visitors.

“I sit on the Broward County Water Advisory Board,” Heimlich says, “and there have been a number of times when they have looked into whether or not it would be possible to build a facility like this in Broward County.”

Related stories:

Treated toilet water creating a wading bird oasis west of Delray Beach

Green Cay Nature Center manager urges water conservation to help wetlands

Photos: Birds of the Everglades

erushing@sun-sentinel.com or 945-356-4745

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