Why Sewage Plants Make for Great Winter Birding Spots

Water, heat, and fertilizer . . . what more could you ask for? Here are a few ideas on where to visit.

Early one December morning, five birders and I bundled up and jumped into a van to run a Christmas Bird Count at Brooklyn's Spring Creek pollution plant. Located on the southern edge of New York City, smack next to Jamaica Bay and JFK Airport, the facility treats and composts wastewater. Each year, we get access to search the muddy ponds on the premises for species that have opted to stay north. And each year, we’re rewarded.

Sewage plants may be off-putting to most anything with a nose, but they’re a magnet for odd wintering birds. The nutrient-rich pools spawn a gourmet spread of insects, and the boilers act like space heaters for tiny passersby. I’ve found Cape May, Orange-crowned, and Black-throated Green Warblers basking in the warmth of the sludge digesters at Spring Creek. The overflows stay ice-free as well, allowing Red-throated Loons and flocks of Brant to land.

Cities need water treatment centers to function, which means these facilities can be found all over the country and world. Here are four of my favorites for birding.

Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, Henderson, Nevada. Take a break from running the poker tables to visit southern Nevada’s third-largest water body. It hosts the Crissal Thrasher, Long-billed Dowitcher, and almost 300 other bird species.

Gilbert Water Ranch, Gilbert, Arizona. Gilbert’s small Riparian Preserve is known for rare finds like a Streak-backed Oriole and a Baikal Teal. In all, nearly 300 species have been sighted here.

Ensley Bottoms, Memphis, Tennessee. With 200-plus species, this great facility offers ample opportunity to see Northern Bobwhite, Mississippi Kite, Black Tern, Red-headed Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, and a whole mess of warblers.

Strandfontein Sewage Works, Capetown, South Africa. This must-see birding spot has well over 200 recorded species, including Karoo Prinia, Red-knobbed Coot, and Spur-winged Goose. Massive flocks of Greater Flamingos mixed in with Lesser Flamingos also feed in the fertile ponds.

If you’re planning on visiting a water treatment plant, be sure to check days and hours of operation. Some like Spring Creek require advanced permission. Others may require you to sign in at the main building so that the staff won’t be surprised by unexpected vehicles. It’s important to remember that birding isn’t the primary activity at these facilities and that access is often a courtesy. Don’t venture into areas marked off limits or try to stay past closing times.

As for gear, you don’t need to don a hazmat suit to bird among sewage—but a hardy choice in footwear will let you step with volition. Muck’s Cambridge Ankle Boots ($120) have excellent grip and Xpress Cool lining that wicks moisture; plus, a quick spray will wash off any gunk you pick up on your quest.