NEWTON — There is a kind of secret spot bird-watchers have been going to see unique species in Newton — they have documented more than 147 bird species, including five species of geese, 17 species of ducks, six herons, 12 hawks/falcons (including bald eagle and Peregrine falcon), and 14 species of shorebirds that make use of the pond birdwatchers have been trying to get too — and wanting better access to.
"It is the No. 3 spot in Harvey County for species diversity," said Libby Albers, with the Kansas Alliance of Wetlands and Streams. "It is second only to East and West Lakes. It is a great hot spot that has developed over the last 10 years."
That pond is man-made, created as part of the Sand Creek Bank Stabilization project in 2009, and it can have raw sewage in it at times of high flows through the wastewater treatment plant.
"Because during periods of high flows at the wastewater treatment plant this receives raw sewage, we can't allow the public to have access to this wetland," said Suzanne Loomis, director of public works for the city of Newton.
Birding is difficult as a result.
"They stand on the periphery or they get special permission to be on the property to do bird counts," Albers said.
This isn't unique to Newton — other communities have seen birds gather at similar places.
"Sewage treatment ponds have become a real boon to bird-watchers, especially on the western half of the country," said Chuck Otte, Geary County K-State Extension agent, birder and manager of the Kansas Bird Listserv. "Those wetlands were, a lot of times, not intended for bird habitat, but it is a wonderful happenstance that it is good habitat."
Currently the Newton wetlands are not open to the public, but that could change.
This year, the Kansas Alliance of Wetlands and Streams is pulling together several groups and working with the city to provide access, albeit with fencing around areas like the sewage pond to keep people out of sensitive areas. That access could come in the form of a parking lot, fencing around the ponds, observation decks and boardwalks to those decks. An additional freshwater pond is also possible.
Ducks Unlimited, Evergy and a local foundation have been part of the discussion as well.
"I believe we will get to the point, if we are not already, of 100% private funds for this project," Loomis said. "There are probably more than 100 bird-watchers in Harvey County who would see this as a lovely addition to our facilities open to the public in Harvey County."