A wastewater wonderland

Story and photography 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 located in the east-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 treatment plant. You’ll also find some of the best and easiest wild birdwatching and photography you’ve ever experienced. It’s called the Viera Wetlands.

Typical view of habitat provided by Viera’s sewage-treatment wetlands.

Establishment of the Viera Wetlands has been a phenomenal success. These created aquatic habitats now provide living spaces for more than 160 species of birds, but—perhaps best of all—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.

A black skimmer deftly applies its craft just after sunrise in the Viera Wetlands

Next I drove to the adjacent cell where I found a flock of 12 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.

A gaggle of white pelicans looking for fish to herd in the Viera Wetlands.

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 phenomenal springtime migration along the Platte River in Nebraska. But this was my first encounter with Florida’s very own subspecies.

A Florida sandhill crane feeds its chick in the Viera Wetlands.

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.

A limpkin adult teaches its chick how to extract snail meat from the shell.

Here’s the best thing about constructed wetlands 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!

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.

So go for it—plan a trip to Viera, Florida, and shoot to your heart’s content. Just make sure to take some extra socks—they may get knocked off more than once!

Editor’s Note: In May 2017 Brevard County experienced a severe drought, and all but two of the man-made ponds at the Viera Wetlands were dry. Other times the Viera Wetlands may close if it is too wet to allow cars on the fragile gravel berms. Call the Natural Resources Management Department at (321) 633-2016, extension 52423,  to reach Raleigh Berry who can tell you the status of the wetlands. The department is open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.  A Facebook page is planned soon.


Budd Titlow

A professional wetland scientist and wildlife biologist, Budd Titlow is an international and national award-winning nature photographer and a widely published writer and author currently living in Tallahassee, Florida. He has authored four books, including Protecting the Planet—Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, Bird Brains—Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, and Seashells—Jewels From the Ocean. He is currently writing weekly birding photo-essays for the Tallahassee Democrat, teaching ecology, birding, and photography courses for Florida State University, and serving as president of the Apalachee Audubon Society. Photos for this story were taken with a Canon EOS 70D camera and Canon EF 70-300mm IS L lens. Occasionally he will add a Canon 600EX-RT flash. You can see his work at www.buddtitlow.com.