Without a doubt, the highlight of my trip to Florida to visit cool birding sites and see lots of birds…..was to a wastewater treatment “plant”. It seems as though it is common practice, at least in that part of Florida, to create wetlands as part of wastewater treatment for municipalities. The benefits to humans are obvious, but the resulting impoundments (they call them “cells”) and wetlands create incredible habitat for a huge variety of species. I read about a birding hot spot called the Viera Wetlands (now officially known as the Rich Grissom Memorial Wetlands, in honor of a long-time county employee) and decided to head down there after my first afternoon at Merritt Island.
This wildlife-rich habitat is part of Brevard County’s wastewater reuse system. According to the literature on the site, reclaimed water is “wastewater effluent that has been highly treated and filtered, resulting in a high quality water suitable for lawn irrigation and many other purposes”. It opened to the public in 2000 and has been a popular spot for photographers, bird watchers, and people that just like to hike or bike in a “natural” setting ever since (an estimated 60,000 visitors per year come to this site).
The area consists of 200 acres divided by berms into four cells (ponds) around a central lake. Dirt roads follow the berms around the wetlands and allow visitors to photograph from their cars or by hiking around the various ponds. I was told it takes about a year for the water to pass through the system. There are also two large ponds nearby, known as the Click Ponds, that are very productive. This is especially true when the water level is lowered, creating shallow pools and large mud flats that are attractive to many shorebirds, American White Pelicans, and Sandhill Cranes.
The sun was clearing the horizon as I drove through the gate, and I could see several cars already driving along the berms. My first bird was a classic Florida species, an Anhinga. Also known as Water-Turkeys or Snake-birds, Anhingas dive into shallow water and spear fish with their insanely pointed bill. This one at first had its head tucked into its back feathers, but, as I watched, it raised its head and then spread those boldly-patterned wings and assumed that classic Anhinga pose. Welcome to Florida. The next day and a half produced many memorable moments and close up observations of a variety of birds and other wildlife. Below are some of my favorites…
With all the open water and marsh edges, there are a lot of “water birds” to see. In addition to the abundance and variety of birds in Florida, I had heard that they tend to be much more approachable than what we typically find in my home state. And that was definitely the case at Viera Wetlands.
There were many non-water birds as well. When the temperatures warmed a little one afternoon, I could see plenty of small insects on the move, providing ample tasty treats for the many Palm Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers that were flitting about.
At one point I stopped to watch hundreds of Tree Swallows as they flapped restlessly on a marshy island.
Suddenly, the entire flock was swept away by some unseen cue, and they disappeared over adjoining forest. Hundreds would occasionally swoop and swerve over the wetlands and the open water at the Click Ponds, snagging thousands of flying insects as they went.
With all the wildlife in the wetlands, there are naturally a number of predators patrolling the area in search of the unwary or weak. I saw quite a few Red-shouldered Hawks and Loggerhead Shrikes, and just missed one of the hawks flying off with a snake. A nearby Bald Eagle nest brought frequent fly-overs of the adult eagles, which always sent the waterfowl and shorebirds into a panic.
And non-avian predators are also abundant. The cold temperatures kept Alligators relatively hidden, but I did see a couple of small ones (the county has started trapping the larger Alligators for safety concerns with the huge increase in visitation and added presence of small children and dogs). One River Otter is so accustomed to people that it regularly naps in a dirt bowl it created alongside the road, always drawing a crowd of admirers.
Two days at a man-made wildlife paradise that also serves as a functioning water reclamation facility…who knew that could be so special. I will definitely be going back, perhaps later this spring, to see what this incredible place can share in a different season.