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Birding in a Wasteland
Birders often go to extremes when trying to add that one special species to their life lists, standing for hours in freezing cold and inky darkness to spy the silent grace of a snowy owl or spending days with neck crimped and eyes skyward for a glimpse of the elusive cerulean warbler. But some birders go even further, traveling to spots that don’t exactly spring to mind as natural beauties. Often these sites were created by enlightened problem solving on the part of local communities and activists. One good example is the northern California city of Arcata, which, starting back in the 1970s, turned a sewage-treatment problem into a prime birding spot (see “From Effluence to Affluence"). Today other towns and cities across the country have followed suit, turning sewage ponds, waste treatment plants, and even landfills into excellent places to see a wide variety of birds and other wildlife. Here are 10 great birding spots that you probably never thought you’d want to visit.

Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, Arcata, California
Once home to lumber mills and a landfill, Arcata Marsh is now a premier site for birding and for environmentally friendly wastewater treatment. The constructed wetlands here act as a biological filter for treated sewage coming from the city of Arcata (population 17,000). The 307-acre site actually consists of six marshes, one main treatment marsh that is densely packed with cattails and bulrushes, and a series of three enhancement marshes that contain more open water. These marsh habitats, the site’s proximity to Humboldt Bay, and the presence of two more large ponds surrounded by prime riparian habitat are all responsible for attracting scores of waterfowl, shorebirds, and seabirds in addition to songbirds, and raptors. Visitors can expect to see canvasbacks, green-winged teals, American widgeons, Virginia rails, surf scoters, black-bellied plovers, and marbled godwits along with peregrine falcons, Wilson’s warblers, and several species of swallow. You may even spot red crossbills in the beach pines that have been planted on site. The Redwoods Region Audubon Society ( leads weekly, guided walks through the sanctuary every Saturday. It’s open to the public from 4 a.m. to an hour after sunset every day, and at only about half a mile from downtown Arcata, it’s an easy walk from town. The sanctuary is located at 596 South G Street in Arcata. For more information, visit Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary or call 707-826-2359.

City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve and Water Reclamation Facility, Henderson, Nevada
This birding oasis in the Nevada desert, just a short drive from the pulsating center of Las Vegas, is home to a rich community of birds that lures birders from around the world. The flocks are attracted to the preserve’s 140 acres of land and its nine retention ponds, which are pumped with fully treated wastewater from the city of Henderson. It was designated a bird viewing preserve by the city in 1997 with the support of a number of local conservation groups, including the RedRock Audubon Society ( The area is on the Pacific Flyway, so it is home to migrant songbirds, waterfowl, and shorebirds, as well as birds of prey. Species visitors might see include hermit thrushes, yellow-breasted chats, burrowing owls, rufous hummingbirds, horned grebes, prairie falcons, and hooded mergansers, to name just a few. The preserve, which is open daily from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., is located at 2400 B Moser Drive in Henderson. For more information visit City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve and Water Reclamation Facility or call (702) 267-4180.

Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant, Austin, Texas
Hornsby Bend is one of the best birding spots in Texas, and it’s home to the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory. The site’s ecologically sound approach to waste treatment combined with its diverse array of habitats attracts hundreds of bird species every year. Nestled into a crook in the Colorado River about eight miles east of downtown Austin, the treatment plant is where all of Austin’s sewage and yard wastes are ultimately recycled into compost. In addition to four treatment ponds, the 1,200-acre facility includes 3.5 miles of Colorado River bottom, agricultural fields, woods, and abandoned pastureland. March and April are great times to visit Hornsby Bend, as migrating birds crowd the grounds. In the early spring you may see pectoral sandpipers, common yellowthroats, orange-crowned warblers, and ruby-crowned kinglets, along with several raptors, such as peregrine falcons and osprey, and the full complement of aquatic species. Ringed and green kingfishers live along the river, too. Public access is located at 2210 South FM 973 in Austin. The site is open from sunrise to sunset daily. For more information, visit Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant or call Kevin Anderson at -512-972-1960.

Memphis Earth Complex, Memphis, Tennessee
This site is called the Earth Complex because of the variety of waste treatment, composting, and mulching activities that go on here. It’s both a frenzy of waste processing and a veritable heaven for birds. And at about 4,500 acres, there’s room enough for everything. The area occupies bottomland tucked into a bend in the Mississippi River and has attracted thousands of birds (and comparable numbers of birders) since opening in 1990. While visitors can see a variety of shorebird species, including long-billed curlews and whimbrels, attracted to a series of large sewage lagoons and catch basins, the crown jewels of the Earth Complex are several nesting pairs of black-necked stilts. These locally rare birds reside near the lagoons and have become the mascot of Memphis’ Department of Solid Waste Management. The Earth Complex is open to birders from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. Vehicles and walkers can use the gravel and dirt roads skirting the sewage lagoons. Employees of the T.E. Maxon Waste Treatment Facility are on-site at 2685 Plant Road in Memphis, and are happy to assist birders in navigating the area. For more information, visit Memphis Earth Complex or call 901-789-0510.

Elkhart Sewage Lagoons, Elkhart, Kansas
This out-of-the-way spot, just outside Elkhart, Kansas, is not for the pampered birder. There is little in the way of amenities beyond a simple homemade sign—“ENJOY THE BIRDS”—fixed to a wire gate. But what this place lacks in creature comforts, it makes up for in outstanding birding opportunities. Shorebirds and waterfowl flock to the four large sewage lagoons located near this town in the state’s southwestern corner. Eurasian widgeons, wood ducks, and hooded mergansers share the lagoons with spotted sandpipers, western phalaropes, and eared grebes. In the spring and early summer, you may even spot migrant songbirds, like yellow-rumped warblers and pine siskins, as they make their way through the area. The lagoons are adjacent to Elkhart, which is just south of the more than 108,000-acre Cimarron National Grasslands. The entrance gate to the lagoons is open all hours, seven days a week, and the lagoons are at 1 Lagoon Lane. For more information, visit Elkhart Sewage Lagoons or call 620-697-4621.

A viewing platform at the Sweetwater Wetland in Tucson.
Credit: Bruce M. Prior

Sweetwater Wetland, Tucson, Arizona
The Sweetwater Wetland is another small patch of habitat that can pack a big punch for birders. This 17.5-acre constructed wetland, a verdant outpost in the surrounding Sonoran Desert, is home to several species of birds that make their homes among the cattails, bulrushes, and saltbush found at the site. The facility, opened to the public in 1998, consists of two large ponds dotted with islands into which treated wastewater from the Roger Road Waste Treatment Plant and the city of Tucson’s water reclamation plant is pumped. About a million gallons of this water per day are filtered through the wetland where it feeds a thriving ecosystem rich with birds and other wildlife. Vistors can expect to see waterfowl like cinnamon teals, ruddy ducks, and pied-billed grebes, along with several warbler species, sora, three blackbird species, and loads of hummingbirds as they stroll along two miles of level walking paths. Late fall and early winter are great times to visit Sweetwater, since the waterfowl numbers peak then. The Sweetwater Wetland is located at 2667 West Sweetwater Drive in Tucson. For more information, visit Sweetwater Wetland or call 520-791-5080, ext. 1403.

Green heron at the Wakodahatchee Wetland in Delray Beach, Florida.
Credit: Karen L. Milstein

Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Delray Beach, Florida
The Wakodahatchee Wetlands is a smallish area with a biggish name. In the mere 50 acres that comprise this constructed wetland, birders can get up close and personal with more than 150 species. A three-quarter-mile raised wooden walkway winds through the marsh grasses, over open water, and into forested wetlands delivering birders right to the doorsteps of white and glossy ibises, great egrets, green herons, and the ever-colorful  roseate spoonbills. You can also see two species of rail, purple gallinules, summer tanagers, and indigo buntings flitting about the wetlands. Wakodahatchee opened to the public in 1997 and it now naturally filters about 5 million gallons of treated, nutrient-rich wastewater per day. The wetlands are wheelchair accessible, open to the public from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week, and are located at 13026 Jog Road, in suburban Delray Beach. For more information, visit Wakodahatchee Wetlands or call 561-493-6000.

Allentown Wastewater Treatment Plant, Allentown, Pennsylvania
Although the grounds of this treatment plant are technically off-limits to the public, large numbers of birds are attracted to the site, and some excellent birding opportunities exist around the perimeter. Bounded by the Lehigh River on its eastern side and by smaller creeks on the western side, the plant sits on prime aquatic bird habitat. A birder recorded a rare black scoter sighting on the river here last year, and wood ducks and hooded mergansers can be spotted, too. A look through the plant’s chain-link perimeter fence (which the plant’s staff does not discourage) toward the five-acre rock beds that filter and treat wastewater, yields scores of killdeers. Also inhabiting the plant and adjacent areas are belted kingfishers, blue-headed vireos, great crested flycatchers, ospreys, and great horned owls. The plant is located at 112 Union Street in Allentown and on public land that surrounds the facility. For more information, visit Allentown Wastewater Treatment Plant or e-mail

Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh, New Jersey
This vast marsh stretches across nearly 3,000 acres of central New Jersey, and is a hodgepodge of different habitats, ownerships, and industrial activities. Several creeks and tidal channels crisscross the marsh, which is tucked into a curve of the Delaware River, Its forests, ponds, and swamps, and a constructed wetlands create a diverse patchwork of habitats here. Treated wastewater from the Hamilton Sewage Treatment Plant flows into the marsh via Crosswicks Creek, and a P.S.E.&G. power plant sits on the site. A capped and covered landfill even slumbers beneath the idyllic scene. Hundreds of bird species inhabit the area, and if you visit, you can see purple gallinules, black terns, black-and-white warblers, and golden eagles among the marsh’s other colorful denizens. An easy way to access the marsh is through John A. Roebling Memorial Park, which is open from dawn to dusk seven days a week, and is located in the southeastern corner of the marsh. Find Roebling Park at the western end of Sewell Avenue in Hamilton Township. For more information, visit Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh or New Jersey Trails or e-mail Mary Leck at

Phinizy Swamp Nature Park, Augusta, Georgia
The Phinizy Swamp Nature Park represents a best-case scenario for degraded-land reclamation. The site where the park now sits was scarred by nearly 100 years of farming, pollution, and trash dumping. But in the 1990s discarded refrigerators, washing machines, and mounds of tires were removed to make room for this lush mosaic of habitats. The park’s 1,100 acres, which opened to the public in 2000, include oxbow lakes, erstwhile farm fields, small patches of upland forest, a sizable chunk of the abutting Phinizy Swamp, several ponds, and 12 constructed wetlands that receive treated wastewater from Augusta’s nearby James B. Messerly Wastewater Treatment Plant. The constructed wetlands contain bulrushes, cattails, and cutgrass, and are a big draw for hundreds of bird species. In spring and summer myriad songbirds live here, and birders walking the miles of wooded trails, boardwalks, or berms winding through the park have a good chance of seeing indigo and painted buntings, blue grosbeaks, parula warblers, eastern kingbirds, rusty blackbirds, and many other species. The park, located at 1858 Lock & Dam Road in Augusta, is open and free to the public from noon to sunset on weekdays and from sunrise to sunset on Saturday and Sunday. For more information, visit Phinizy Swamp Nature Park or call 706-828-2109.

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