Bulldozers push around refuse. Machinery rumbles and beeps. Trucks barrel past. All the while, birds call out like flocks of screaming children. Welcome to the Brevard County Central Disposal Facility in Cocoa, Fla. — a birder’s paradise.
“I had no idea,” said Joel Reynolds, a retiree, birder and wildlife photographer who learned about the unlikely appeal of this landfill just a few years ago. “I just thought it was a stinky, smelly place.”
Popular pit stops for migrating gulls and an easy bite for local birds, the Brevard landfill and other landfills become mess halls for thousands of avian diners, especially in the winter.
The Brevard site has become a part of the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival’s annual events. If you’re headed to Florida, the festival kicked off this week and runs to Monday.
But there are plenty more opportunities in other places to scurry over piles of sharp objects and maggot-infested mystery mush to catch a glimpse of some of the exotic flying things that are drawn to landfills. If that sounds like fun, consider this your guide to dirty birding.
First, call to see if the local landfill allows visitors. If it does, you will probably take a safety class and sign a release. Don’t just show up or sneak in: Some landfills have kicked birding groups out for breaking their rules or disrupting their work.
Wear boots, long pants and a hat. You will have to learn to ignore the stench, and bring a change of clothes for those at home who can’t. To spot highfliers, carry a pair of binoculars or a telescope.
Expect a lot of birds. In Florida, birders have spotted white ibis, cattle egrets, eagles, herons, wood storks and cranes. But the landfills there are best known for gulls of many species from all over the East Coast. There are fairly significant numbers of lesser black-backed gulls, a European bird that has showed up in the United States in the last few decades. Right now a project is banding and tracking them to find out their origin. “We do not where these birds are coming from despite the fact that there are thousands,” said Michael Brothers, a manager at the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet, Fla.
Go when the birds go. The best day is garbage day, because some birds know the trucks driving in carry the good stuff for foraging. Their presence, and sometimes rodents, also attracts winged predators like eagles that see landfills as prime hunting ground. “You can see the birds streaming from their evening roost towards the landfill,” Mr. Brothers said. Some even roost at the landfills.
If you won’t be in Florida, there are plenty of other landfill birding opportunities. Some favorites are in St. John’s in Newfoundland; Assam, India; near San Diego; and in Brownsville, Tex., known by birders as the only reliable place in the United States to spot the Tamaulipas crow, a Mexican bird with a very limited range.
For New Yorkers, the best bet is a landfill in Tullytown, Pa., said Tom Stephenson, a member of the Brooklyn Bird Club and author of a popular Warbler guide. He recommends referring to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s e-bird database while planning a trip. You can plug in where you want to go and see if the birds that have been spotted there are worth holding back your gag reflex.
But if you would rather see restored nature, with a lot less odor, visit a capped landfill. Freshkills Park on Staten Island used to have mountains of trash as high as buildings. It has since been converted into a park with grasslands, wetlands and a totally different ecology from the one it served as an active landfill. The park’s planners hope that birds that are threatened by habitat loss, like short-eared owls, will seek refuge in these restored habitats. Researchers are working to monitor which birds show up there, and tours go on all year.
But don’t dismiss active landfills just because they smell rotten.
“Some of the best places to see birds are places most humans don’t go,” Mr. Stephenson said.
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