They're All Wet

Circling gracefully overhead, a large anhinga soars on its outstretched wings, looking for a place to alight just west of I-95 in Dania Beach. As the majestic water bird surveys the scene, so does Glenda Kelley, noting that not long ago, the dark-feathered fowl would have been looking elsewhere for food and shelter.

"This was all scoured land when it was given to us," says Kelley, a biologist for the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame and Museum. She explains that the land now supporting both the IGFA's building and the 3.5-acre wetland being eyed by the anhinga is a reclaimed Superfund site.

"We built it, and they came," Kelley says with pride. "I've seen at least 56 bird and reptile species in the two years since we installed the site, and they've mostly all just found their way here across the concrete wastelands of South Florida."

The wetland ecosystem was carefully mapped out by Tom Levin of Tampa's Ekistics Design but was planted and is maintained by Native Technologies of Fort Lauderdale. It's actually four wetlands in one, since it simulates four different ecosystems: floodplain forest, cypress swamp, freshwater marsh, and salt marsh/mangrove swamp. Each mini habitat features unique plants and animals with unique requirements, so keeping everyone and everything happy can be tricky, especially since they all flow together.

The first three environments are fed fresh water through interconnecting culverts; the mangrove swamp is a brackish, tidal ecosystem, which at 12-hour intervals gets tricked into responding to an artificial incoming or outgoing tide.

Visitors can check it all out from the wooden boardwalk that snakes through the wetland, allowing them to make a circle around the different sites on self-guided tours. Each area features interpretive signs depicting the plants and animals that call the place home and indicating where else in Florida one can find a similar setting.

"Of course it's always busy at breakfast feeding time, but we're not open that early," Kelley says. "It gets lively again as dusk nears and birds come home to roost."

But Kelley insists some wildlife is always in view, and plenty of evidence backed her up on a recent afternoon: A little blue heron bobbed his neck looking for food, a great blue heron and great white egret fished in the shallows, a flock of moorhens (an extended family of four generations) clowned around, and a group of nonnative ducks quacked for food.

Taking in such a scene on a sunny day in this peaceful place is a real stress-buster, as long as you mentally block out the roar of the nearby freeway. Hey, the birds don't seem to mind.

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Tomi Curtis