Sharing space: How birds and wildlife co-exist next to a $300 million public project

Birds in urban areas often take flight from everyday trees to find more suitable places to nest. And despite massive construction, it looks like the neighborhood water treatment plant is a prime and popular location for those winged nest hunters.

But having those kinds of neighbors does present a challenge.

“(The nests) can put a wrench in a project because it can potentially slow the work down and make (construction crews) revise what they are doing until the nest is no longer active,” said Steve Rottenborn, vice president and wildlife ecologist with Los Gatos based H.T. Harvey and Associates and one of the district’s project consultants.

Searching for bird nests
On the hunt for bird nests around the Rinconada Water Treatment Plant.

And so, since the start of the Reliability Improvement Project at the Rinconada Water Treatment Plant two years ago, the water district has tapped the skills of local biologists to inspect crevices, ledges and other areas under construction to see where birds have begun creating nests and to protect those nests already established with eggs or baby birds.

Last year,  they detected 180 nests around the 43-acre site. So far this year, the team counted 135 nests and deterred more than 120 nesting attempts.

“Birds of all kinds really love construction sites and typically seek out odd structures such as poles, drained sludge ponds, small ledges and crevices above electrical boxes,” said H.T. Harvey Biologist Craig Fosdick.

Work areas like the project site at Rinconada, are prime draws for wildlife that make construction sites their home. And if a nest is discovered, state and federal laws mandate no physical disturbance of the nest or enough noise near it to cause the parents fear enough to abandon the nest, Rottenborn said.

“When we know something (at the construction site) is going to be demolished or rearranged, we try to get the birds to relocate rather than waste energy on a nesting site that could disappear,” said Ginger Bolen, H.T. Harvey’s associate wildlife ecologist.

“Without environmental professionals like these, we wouldn’t be able to perform our work and maintain our schedules,” water district Capital Engineering Manager Mike Munson said.

northern rough-winged swallows in under carriage of semi trailer
Peek-a-boo! Northern rough-winged swallows nesting in the undercarriage of a semi-trailer.

The nesting season typically gets into full swing between March and May, though mourning doves and hummingbirds begin in mid-January with raptors close behind. In this area, Bolen said the season can actually extend through mid-September, with some birds making second nests.

“We’ll see discarded caution tape, string, numerous items they are throwing away in their nests.  They especially like shiny items,” Fosdick said.

The team keeps on top of the bird population through sophisticated monitoring with iPads and other devices that track sound, images and dates.

“We’re excited to update this facility with the most modern water treatment processes while also protecting the habitat and the species who call the plant home much of the year,” Munson said.

It’s not just birds the biologists focus on at the plant. When they aren’t following their winged friends, they actively pursue the San Francisco dusky-footed woodrat, a species of special concern in the region, or find ways to preserve vegetation.

“This is a prime area for the woodrat with open space, woodland and water and few disturbances,” Bolen said.

woodrat relocation crew
Some of the folks on the woodrat relocation crew. Biologists have been a welcome presence on the Reliability Improvement Project.

The team also assisted the water district by developing a plan when it had to remove several trees at the site due to the construction. The plan detailed how the water district would compensate for the removed trees by establishing a new oak woodland on site and recommended ways to minimize tree impacts and protect trees not targeted for removal.

It’s all part of a cohesive plan to rebuild Santa Clara County’s longest operating drinking water treatment plant while maintaining the delicate balance to co-exist with the surrounding wildlife.



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