An unusual paradise
Renovated wastewater oxidation ponds are birders’ haven
It’s an unexpected getaway, but for those hoping to catch glimpses of rare birds and migratory waterfowl, an improved (but not new) spot near Chico’s Water Pollution Control Plant is soon to become a year-round destination of sorts.
About 500 yards west of the WPCP on Chico River Road is the restored Chico Oxidation Ponds Wildlife Sanctuary, a wildlife habitat that, over the last 40 years, has had more rare bird sightings than any other place in the North State, said Scott Huber, president of the Altacal Audubon Society.
The sanctuary wasn’t easily accessible to the public for several years, but on Saturday, Feb. 19, the local chapter of the Audubon Society—along with the WPCP, the Sacramento River Preservation Trust and the city of Chico—will officially celebrate the completion of its facelift, which includes a parking lot and crushed-granite pathway that is wheelchair-accessible, newly planted vegetation to attract wildlife, and a bird-hide for visitors to view critters in their natural environment.
“It has been a long legacy of people who have been working to bring these ponds to the point that they’re at,” Huber said, as he looked at the water blanketed by clammy fog, a place where he’s led several field trips in the past. “This is like a model of what sustainability is all about—taking waste water and turning it into a home for wildlife.”
Huber, a longtime birder, knows his stuff. He majored in geography at Chico State, and became interested in birds after college. Huber has spent the past few decades touring waste-water treatment plants around the country (none of which are as clean or smell as decent as Chico’s, he’ll tell you). He’s the type of person who stops mid-sentence to listen to a far-away bird’s song.
On a recent trip to the sanctuary during a cold winter morning, Huber described how, through a collaboration of agencies, the sanctuary was restored as a part of the city’s two-year expansion plan for the WPCP. Most of the work involved removing invasive plant species and planting native vegetation to cater to migrating birds.
The sanctuary’s three ponds vary in size and were intentionally designed so that all water flow first goes into a small, five-acre pond before flowing into the other ponds, which are about 32 and 35 acres in size, said WPCP Manager Mark Sulik. Restoration efforts were focused on the 32-acre pond.
“The idea is to create the natural habitat that existed around the valley before we arrived and before we made major changes to the valley,” Sulik said.
That effort to accommodate birds’ needs, along with the wetlands’ quiet atmosphere and isolation, makes an ideal hub for a variety of species, especially during the migrating months of April and October, when birds stop at the ponds to bulk up, said Huber.
“We created different depths so the ponds lend themselves to shorebirds,” Huber said as he paused to listen to an American coot’s song in the distance. “There is deeper water for wading birds, like herons and egrets, and even deeper water for ducks.”
Huber trudged along a path in between the ponds with his spotting scope propped over his shoulder, and slowed his pace when a large group of ducks noticed his presence and began to shy away. He pointed to a few new “loafing islands,” areas created so ducks can relax without the fear of skunks, raccoons, bobcats, coyotes and other predators.
“Out there, there’s nothing that can get to them,” Huber said.
He smiled and peered through his scope at a wading cinnamon teal duck, a bird with a shiny, brown-sugar-colored coat and iridescent wings. Nearby, a snowy egret stood robustly on a metal fence, still and proud.
Huber continued on the gravel path to a bird-hide in the distance, a small, enclosed wooden shelter donated by the Audubon Society that allows birders to scope out wildlife without spooking them. Inside, he set up his scope and peered through slots in the walls, quickly spotting a male bufflehead—a small black-and-white duck with a bulbous head—in the distance.
The society is in the process of renovating the bird-hide, which was located on the other side of the ponds before restoration, Huber said. There are also plans to plant willows and shrubs in front of the structure, which will make visitors even less visible to the birds in the ponds below.
About $400,000 of the $45 million expansion project (funded by a state revolving loan-fund) was set aside to restore the ponds, and beginning this summer maintaining the ponds will be part of the city of Chico’s landscape-contracting duties. The city expects to repay the low-interest loan over the next 30 years, Sulik said.
According to birders like Huber, it was a worthwhile investment.
Before the ponds were renovated, members of the public were required to check in at WPCP before climbing through a small hole in the fence near the sanctuary. On top of that, there was no path that was suitable for birders with limited mobility, Huber noted.
The accessibility of the ponds and the bird-hide has transformed the sanctuary from a place only expert birders know about, to a place where the general public can experience birding in a casual setting, he said.
He also noted that an interest in birds is often a jumping-off point for wildlife enthusiasts.
“Birds are showy, they’re colorful. A lot of people who get into birds soon eventually think to themselves, ‘Wow, I’d really like to know the name of every snake and lizard now, too,’” he said.
For Huber, birding is a kind of sport.
“It’s going out and searching for the most species, different species, and being able to identify subtle differences,” he said. “It’s all a part of a game.”
Improved accessibility to the wetlands is likely to spark interest in people who may not have become birders otherwise, especially kids, said Huber, who has a daughter who’s into wildflowers and a son who shares his love of birds.
“It’s easier to get [kids] focused on technology, but stuff like that draws them away from their natural inclination to get outdoors,” he said. “This could help grow younger naturalists.”