This article first appeared in the September 2021 edition of Birdwatching Magazine
Over the years I’ve seen some excellent birds at the least salubrious of places. Back in my twitching days my ‘lifer’ spotted crake was in a dirty puddle under a flyover, crouching among the detritus that clung to an abandoned shopping trolley.
Overseas, I’ve been amazed what birds find attractive. I watched a group of stilts in India finding food in the dirtiest, smelliest ditch I’ve ever come across, the little water was black and the whole thing was like liquified litter, so pungent I rocked back on my heels when the odour assaulted me.
I once sat waiting for her good self in a busy city carpark watching a pair of collared doves creating a nest on the bend in a wastepipe where the split in it had bubbled out sufficient crud for a slender ledge to form, apparently, all the space the doves needed to lay their eggs.
At my Florida hotel a blue heron scrapped with a great egret to establish ownership of an overflowing waste-bin at the rear of the kitchens. I gagged on the smell of rotting hamburger leftovers, my eyes watering as I enjoyed their posturing. Apparently, some African vultures can smell the rotting corpse of a lion kill twenty miles away. I think I could have found the kitchen waste in the dark too.
The thing is that what we waste is either a meal in itself, or attracts insects and other waste-disposal members of the animal kingdom that are part of the avian food chain. I recall a recent meme of a large gull swallowing a large rat whole as it stood sentry by a broken sewer pipe.
This spring I made the necessary trip to my local ‘poo ponds’. It is always the best place to see yellow wagtails as they migrate through and the site is often good for rarities too, maybe attracted by the warmth in winter or the mossies in summer. Overhead, hirundines filtered midges from the up draughts while the yellow beauties waggled along the retaining walls of sewage lagoons.
What prompted this musing, over and above migration, was a news story about the tens of thousands of ‘discharge incidents’ last year. This is when rising water levels means we have to discharge sewage into waterways, or risk pressure causing unmentionable backflow into our homes. Our largely Victorian system is meant to deal with tidal surges and unusually heavy rainstorms, but as one water company spokesman said, these days, a little drizzle is enough to cause problems as too many people use a system and far less groundwater drains naturally.
Every front garden paved over to park the car is another nail in the water-table’s coffin. Every wood or reedbed turned over to crops is another. Every, burned moor or motorway extension edges us ever closer to an overwhelmed cistern.
However, there are fixes. London is spending billions on huge tunnels to solve the problem, …for now. But longer term we need other ways of solving the problem, from composting toilets to reedbed filtration to ‘swales’ for storm drainage. The good news is that if we start now, turning marshes back to how they were, getting beavers to damn our headwaters and bringing green ‘swale’ corridors into cities we not only stop polluting rivers and the sea, but we give wildlife back prime habitat.
Each of us can help by lobbying our own local governments and water companies to create ever more wetlands for the birds, helping humanity restore habitat and redirect ‘waste’ water. Better effluent management means coming up smelling of roses!