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LOGAN - Spirits soared Saturday morning when northern Utah bird-watchers spotted tundra swans, bald eagles, gobs of gadwalls and ducks galore at an otherwise uninviting locale - Logan's sewage ponds.
Avid birders say wastewater treatment facilities are ideal venues for spotting hundreds of species and thousands of birds, especially in the winter.
"There's a virtual cornucopia of bird species," said Keith Archibald, leader of Saturday's Bridgerland Audubon Society field trip.
By the end of the process, the treated water is actually cleaner than the water flowing in rivers, he said.
"There's no smell there," Archibald said. "They're not the stinky cesspools that people think of."
The sewage lagoons draw birds because the water is rich in nutrients that enhance plant growth ideal for the avian diet, he said. And aerators used to treat the water also help keep the ponds from icing over, making the sewage ponds one of the few places in the valley where there's still open water in cold winters.
"As soon as the hunting season starts, the ducks know that they're safe there and we can have days when there will be thousands of ducks on those waters, plus herons, shorebirds, gulls and raptors," Archibald said.
Logan resident Sue Drown, treasurer of the Bridgerland Audubon Society, said many avian enthusiasts even seek out sewage treatment facilities as tourist destinations wherever they vacation. Wastewater treatment facilities in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Sierra Vista, Ariz., for example, have added nature centers, trails and even docents.
"They make it into a nature park, and it's a huge resource for communities that do it," Drown said. "We're not as crazy as you may think."
Although the treatment centers continue to draw winged visitors, since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, public access to the wastewater treatment facilities has been more restricted, Drown said. Birders in Logan have been accommodated by the city, which will unlock the gates to the facility upon request.
"They've always been very nice, but you have to get permission and you have to be a part of a group," Drown said.
Members of the Cache Valley group scarcely noticed sub-freezing temperatures as they stood along the edge of the Logan sewage dikes and peered through binoculars and powerful scopes balanced on tripods.
With visible breath, the birders oohed and awed over the feathered creatures in their sights, and invited bystanders to step up and take a look.
Birding is a year-round hobby for many enthusiasts, including Dick Hurren of Brigham City, who has scoped out birds all over the world. Hurren's car trunk is always packed with binoculars and bird-identification books. "You can bird almost anywhere in the world."
There's more to the hobby than "watching," he said. One of the favorite pastimes of many birders is debating what species they're spying.
"There are a lot of different species of gulls," said Hurren, who knows 1,200 bird species. "They're difficult to tell apart and easy to argue about."