BIRD BRAINS—Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends
By Budd Titlow
Do you want to knock your birding and photography socks off without busting your bank account? And—in the process—get to witness a prime example of sustainable water management for wildlife habitat enhancement and climate change control?
If so, just grab your binoculars and camera gear and head to the Brevard County Wastewater Treatment Plant (BCWTP) located in the central Florida town of Viera, Florida—just 2.5 miles west of I-95. There you’ll find 200 acres of constructed wetlands that are supported and nourished by advanced treatment outflow from the BCWTP. You’ll also find some of the best and easiest wild bird watching and photography you’ve ever experienced. And—best of all—you can get great shots of everything you see with no more than a 300 mm lens (see the photos accompanying this article). No super-telephotos are needed here to get potentially prize-winning shots here!
At first blush, sewage and birds may still seem like an oxymoronic pairing. But such is not the case throughout our nation’s “Sunshine State.” There are 17 natural (both treatment and receiving) wastewater wetlands—totaling an estimated 6,200 acres—plus 21 constructed wetland sites—comprising roughly 4,000 acres—across the State of Florida.
Now here are some details about the specific set-up at Viera: In 1998, the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands—more commonly and locally known as the “Viera Wetlands”—were created by transforming historic grazing land into cells—four in all—of deep and shallow marshland vegetation. Each of these constructed wetland cells now surrounds a small upland island of about one acre in size. Collectively, the four wetland cells also border a central lake habitat with a maximum depth of almost 30 feet.
Construction of this mosaic of natural habitats involved excavating the upland soil from the pastureland and using this material to create earthen berms that both contain and separate the marshland habitats. This earthwork also included emplacement of a system of pipes that connected the treated and polished effluent from the sewage treatment plant to the wetland cells.
Next came the installation of more than 200,000 plants—encompassing 19 native species—in the constructed wetland basins. Biologists specifically selected these plants to mimic the natural aquatic habitats found in central Florida. The four upland islands received an additional 2,600 native plant species—again chosen to emulate local natural habitats—including cypress hammocks, hardwood hammocks, and pine-hardwood forests. As an additional part of this habitat creation, mature longleaf pines and sabal palms were left in place to provide roosting and nesting structures for a variety of bird species.
Establishment of this multi-faceted central Florida wetland habitat has been a phenomenal success. The Viera Wetlands now provide living spaces for more than 160 species of birds, plus the birding and photography access is “as easy as pie”. A network of 2.4 miles of one-way, 10 mph gravel roads—perched atop the earthen berms—allows superb opportunities for virtually every square foot of the sanctuary.
To illustrate just how good Viera is, let me describe one of my recent spring visits: I arrived at the sanctuary just after sunrise and spent an hour watching/photographing black skimmers as they soared just above the water’s surface with their beaks slicing artfully through the water. The contrast of the dark water and beautiful morning light on the birds produced my first “life shots” of the day.
Next I drove to the adjacent cell where I found a flock of twelve white pelicans moving in a choreographed avian ballet. I was in heavenly bliss as these magnificent birds demonstrated their classic feeding behavior right before my eyes. First, all of the pelicans gathered together in a tight group and then broke out—swimming in a single line. They continued this “follow-the-leader” action for a few hundred feet until the first bird turned perpendicular to the rest. Taking this cue from their leader, the rest of the pelicans swam into a semicircle and then immediately ducked their heads in unison and scooped up the fish they had been herding.
I suppose you could say that one of the “problems” with Viera is that you have to move on from each spectacular avian display because you know that there is something equally as good going on right around the corner. And my next subject certainly didn’t disappoint.
Driving just a few hundred yards further, I came upon a cluster of people training their binoculars and lenses on a pair of huge long-legged, gray birds with bright red caps. As I watched these proceedings, I realized that these birds were sandhill cranes. While living in Colorado, I experienced sandhill cranes many times—most notably during their springtime migration phenomenon along the Platte River in Nebraska. But this was my first encounter with Florida’s very own subspecies of sandhill crane.
After leaving my car and blending into the group, I found an even bigger surprise. Each of the sandhill adults was busily teaching two tiny yellow chicks how to feed. As with most birds at Viera, the sandhills paid us absolutely no mind while we all happily clicked away—getting full-frame shots from distances of less than 10 feet.
After an hour of watching and shooting, I contentedly moved on to the next gaggle of birders and photographers gathered along the roadside. Here I encountered my first limpkins—a classic native Florida bird which has disappeared from many of its original habitats in the state. As with the sandhill cranes, two limpkin adults were busily feeding their nearly fledged young. But this time, the feeding behavior was much more precise and focused. As I watched and photographed, each adult successively waded into the adjacent shallow marsh and emerged with a snail—the highly preferred food of these birds. Placing the snail shell on the ground, the adult limpkin then used its specially adapted beak to pluck out the snail meat. The next step involved feeding the extracted meat to its eager young protégé.
During this same visit, I also watched a great blue heron catch and gulp down a greater siren—an eel-like salamander that had to be at least two feet long. Plus I had the pleasure of seeing a great egret repeatedly using a dazzling “dancing routine” to scare up small fish which it then consumed.
Now here’s the best part of these constructed wetlands—like Viera—from a climate change standpoint: All types of wetlands—from temperate freshwater marshes to boreal peatlands—are carbon-sequestering systems or “carbon sinks.” This means that wetlands have the ability to store excess carbon—via photosynthesis—from our atmosphere. So, the more wetlands—sewage and otherwise—we create across our landscape, the better off we are going to be in our battle against climate change!
To summarize, most outdoor advocates realize that the State of Florida is one of the best places on the planet for watching and photographing wild birds. (After moving back here six years ago, I soon had enough high quality material to publish a hard cover book on the subject.) And—from every perspective—the Viera Wetlands are the best place I’ve found in Florida for both fabulous birding and photography. It’s all right there waiting for you—an amazing diversity of bird life, great natural settings, easy driving access, unflappable subjects, plus a plethora of restaurants and hotels within a three mile radius. Plus the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and its widely celebrated “Black Point Drive” is only a 30-minute drive away.
So go for it—plan a trip to Viera, Florida and watch/photograph wild birds to your heart’s content. Just make sure you take some extra socks—you’re definitely going to need them!
Photo credits: Copyright Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS (ALL)
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.