Birdist Rule #44: Learn to Love Landfills and Sewage Treatment Plants

Ah, the sweet smell of birding success.

I never said birding was going to be all national parks and botanical gardens. You’ve got to go where the birds are—wherever they are. And believe me, friend, birds are at landfills and sewage treatment plants.

Birds are at dumps because there’s a ton of food. If you’ve never visited an active landfill before, it’s pretty much just what you imagine: a giant mountain of smelly trash being shoved around by a couple of bulldozers. The trash includes everything that’s thrown away: deflated basketballs, plastic bags, creepy headless dolls, and tons and tons of food scraps. Food scraps that are, of course, delicious meals for birds.

Birds are at sewage treatment plants because there’s a lot of water. If you’ve never visited a sewage treatment plant before, it’s probably not what you imagine. Yes, it’s a facility that handles the things we’ve flushed down our toilets, separating the waste from the water, but most of that happens out of sight. What birders see when they visit a sewage treatment plant (also known as a wastewater treatment plant) are ponds. Non-smelly, verdant, open “stabilization ponds,” which aid in the natural separating of water and solids. 

Birders take a certain perverse joy in visiting landfills and sewage treatment plants. We get a kick out of going to places that make other people crinkle their noses, that visiting could otherwise be seen as a kind of punishment. Most of all, though, we like going because there are great birds.

Omnivorous birds do very well at landfills. Clouds of gulls, crows, blackbirds, and starlings feast on decaying food waste dumped daily on landfills. Gull-watching at landfills is especially good in winter, when rare species come down from northern breeding grounds. I’ll never forget seeing my first Glaucous Gull—an all-white youngster—rise out of the horde of more common gulls like a beautiful trash angel. The only reliable spot in America for the Tamaulipas Crow was the hot, stinking dump in Brownsville, Texas, until a few years ago when it changed to cleaner technologies and the crows all left.

Landfills are also important to other species. The permanent availability of food is causing some birds, like the White Stork in Europe, to no longer need to migrate. During the winter, large numbers of Bald Eagles congregate at certain landfills. Dumps are used primarily by younger eagles looking for easy meals while they learn the skills to catch healthier food, but birds of all ages are common. There is some kind of geopolitical metaphor in there about America’s national bird feeding on our own scraps, but I am choosing to leave it unexplored. Let’s move on.

A much wider variety of birds can be found at sewage treatment plants. The vast ponds of open water, often at different varying depths, mean that treatment plants can be a major attraction for migrating shorebirds and wintering waterfowl. I’ve seen mobs of each at the plant in Sanford, Maine, and at the Seaman Road facility in southern Mississippi. In the San Joaquin Valley in central California, where there's a lack of open water, the Fresno Wastewater Treatment Plant has become one of the biggest species hotspots in the area. There are similarly important facilities across the country.

Visiting landfills and wastewater treatment plants is usually more complicated than visiting other birding sites, however. So here are a couple things to remember:

  • Plan in advance. These are private facilities, not required to be open to birders. Some places are only open on certain days or hours per week, and they often require you to call ahead for permission. Most all of these sites make you check in when you arrive so that workers know you’re just a birder and not some trash creep. Local bird club websites frequently have the information you need to plan a trip, or, even better, they will lead organized trips of their own.
  • Stay out of the way. These are working facilities, and you don’t want to interrupt the important business of trash-burying and waste-cleaning with your avian gawkery. Stay the heck out of anyone’s way. Bring a scope and set up somewhere where you won’t get a hot load of fresh garbage dumped on you, and make sure you listen to any directions given to you by the staff. This isn’t just for your own safety, mind you, but misbehaving birders can result in the facility closing their doors to others
  • Maybe bring a change of clothes. This is only an issue at landfills, which can stink in a way that’ll make your nostril hair fall out. This is the kind of smell that can settle into your pores and cling onto your clothes, so it's a good idea to keep an extra shirt in the car or head home for a quick shower before going on a date. 
  • Tell everyone. This isn't really a tip, but what’s the use in going to a giant stinking dump or a pond of dissolved solids if you can’t horrify your friends and coworkers about it by telling them later?

Landfills and sewage treatment plants are parts of the human footprint that we like to pretend don’t exist, so they're worth a visit just to remind ourselves of the full impact of human existence. The fact that they're also darn good places to see birds is a bonus. It’s good, clean, dirty, gross fun.