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Wildlife abounds at the Regional Wastewater Facility in 2017

Post Date:03/01/2018 6:20 PM
The southern reaches of San Francisco Bay contain an incredible array of wildlife, crowned by a majestic new arrival: a pair of bald eagles who live in a redwood tree on the campus of a Milpitas elementary school.

The raptors reared a fuzzy little eaglet this spring and spent the fall readying their nest for reproductive attempt No. 2.

It’s the highlight of a remarkable year for wildlife in the estuary surrounding the San José-Santa Clara Wastewater Facility (RWF), which discharges more than 80 million gallons of tertiary-treated wastewater a day into the southern Bay.

The eagles hunt frequently on and around our 2,600-acre property, snatching striped bass from the salty water and coots and ducks from our drying beds and sludge lagoons.

Golden eagles, many of which nest in the East Bay, are spotted at the RWF as well.

It's a pretty good sign of ecosystem health that two of North America's largest predatory birds choose to dine at the RWF, said Jim Ervin, compliance manager for the wastewater facility.

"A lot of things have to go right to have those charismatic top-tier predators," said Ervin. "They’re the tip of the biological iceberg. You’ve got to have a huge number of living things interacting and creating a food source for that top tier."

The RWF is the largest advanced wastewater treatment facility on the West Coast. At the San José Environmental Services Department, which runs the facility, we take pride in strict adherence to effluent regulations to safeguard public health and benefit the environment.

That philosophy supports dozens of fish and bird species, including peregrine falcons, the world's fastest animals. This spring, Thunder, a peregrine falcon born atop San José City Hall, nested with a mate on a transmission tower in Pond A18 on our property. The pair hatched two chicks whom they protected with great ferocity, dive-bombing any birds that approached the tower.

The young falcons appear to have survived and winged away in search of their own territory. Thunder and his mate have abandoned last season's nest but are still seen in the area.

Meanwhile, the population of burrowing owls on 201 acres of bufferlands next to the RWF continues to prosper under a new five-year management agreement between the City and the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Agency, which now oversees habitat improvements and volunteer participation.

The western burrowing owl, a California species of special concern, may be the cutest and funniest animal in the South Bay, as the footage from our surveillance cameras attests.

The observed population during the 2017 nesting season peaked in July, when 62 owls were counted, including 33 adults and 29 chicks. The population has experienced significant growth since 2012, when ESD began ongoing habitat enhancement at the site.

Less visible, but just as fascinating, are the more than 30 fish species that glide through the waters of the southern Bay: leopard sharks, bat rays, shovelnose guitarfish, halibuts, flounders, herrings, anchovies, sculpins, sticklebacks, pipefish, gobies and many more.

This spring, scientists discovered longfin smelt spawning in the southern Bay for the first time in years. These small oceangoing fish, once plentiful in the Bay Area, are listed as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. The spawning effort may have been aided by the wet winter of 2016-17, which provided the Bay with an extra infusion of fresh water, yielding the low-salinity mix these fish seek when laying eggs.

"It’s a very good sign," said Ervin, "that there’s hope for that tiny critter."

There are so many stories to tell about the animals we observe while monitoring the Bay and protecting local creeks. Stay tuned to this blog for further wildlife tales and a whole lot more!

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